IN THE PATRONAGE society that we have, contact tracing is nothing new. It did not refer to tracking down exposure to an identified contagious individual to check whom he bump-fisted with and identify all those who need to be warned and tested for possible testing and quarantine.
The old meaning of contact tracing had to do with seeking influential individuals (like old classmates or former neighbors) that would help advance one’s personal agenda. Manila, as the generic name for the influence capital of the country, is a small world. This realization quickly hits even the outsider as he navigates the social milieu that move the informal political and corporate levers of the country.
In the routine ritual, usually over food, where two sets of strangers are getting acquainted, there is the obligatory small talk bent on discovering one’s place in the social map by searching for common ancestors, colleagues, schools, companies, relatives, and birthplaces — in other words, contact tracing. The exchange of social details ends up with a sigh of delight upon hitting the sweet spot where common ground can be claimed. (So, Soraya is your wife… I used to be her seatmate in kindergarten.)
The social world as far as the two former strangers go is intended to discover common connections to establish the following: a.) we have common backgrounds in our history; b.) we go back a long way without knowing it; and c.) we live in a small world.
It’s possible that common roots and personal networks do not necessarily lead to sparks of affection. In the confluence of a spouse and an “ex” the contact tracing may even be bitter — so you are the villain who dumped her after a convention in Boracay when you met your now estranged partner who used to go kayaking with you at Station 2… she’s been trying to hunt you down for a long time.
Common acquaintances are not necessarily respected or even trusted. The social game of tracing has its downside. The unsavory association with a mentioned name can easily be transferred to the person newly met. The claimed intimacy with a shady character leads to guilt by association. One man’s bosom buddy can be another person’s despised history — he fired me from my job 10 years ago.
Contact tracing is particularly risky when dealing with politicians. Thus, petitioners in some bureaucrat’s office may make small talk by trying to play the game of common acquaintances, also known as “name dropping.” Unless one is sure of who is feuding with whom and which parties are no longer on the same side, it is best to be discreet even when a friend advises you — “give him my regards. He owes me big time.”
Politicians anyway are on their guard with contact tracers. Strangers trying to seek favors and presenting themselves as part of the patronage culture are too common to be effective. They are the very stuff of politics — a lot of small talk going nowhere can veer towards the uncomfortable — so, which vaccines were you allowed to import?
It may be refreshing for corporate powers in charge of selecting partners or suppliers to encounter someone who does not even attempt to trace common roots. These business-only proponents rely on the quality of the services they offer and the soundness of their proposals. They find no need to pat backs and seek connections, whether real or imagined.
If in the course of future meetings with others, warm words of respect (this is a person you can trust) go a longer way than a game of small talk where names are grasped like driftwood by those swimming in these times of uncertainty.
Contact tracing even in the old normal had its risks. Not all connections turn out to be fondly remembered, or even relevant.
With the new meaning and purpose of contact tracing to track down spreader events or venues needing to be shut down and disinfected, getting too close to a high-profile contact, later discovered to be “positive,” has only a down side. Rubbing elbows with the higher-ups goes against the rules of social distancing.
Too often, the question for the newly suspect carrier is the tiresome one asked of connections both high and low — how did you get it?
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda