As the pandemic upended the way of life, isolation became the norm with many finding comfort in the company of non-human family members: pets.
But for those in Myanmar, political upheaval is an additional threat to safety -- a problem that Filipina Karen Vinalay faced along with her pet cat Jon Snow White for over four months.
The sound of bombs, gunshots, and her friends being detained and in hiding, and the "unbearable" stress of the political situation in Myanmar prompted Vinalay to return to the Philippines. The situation was so bad that Vinalay said she had not left her street in Yangon apart to get basic goods.
But Vinalay did not want to return to the Philippines without Jon Snow White. She went as far as to plead to the Philippines' top diplomat for the feline's spot in a repatriation flight from Yangon, saying her pet is her "one and only family" in the foreign country.
"Coming back is more about mental health but I'm still hoping to go back [to Myanmar]. I just don't know when it's going to be okay," she told reportr in a phone interview.
"I did not go home because of COVID. I went here [in the Philippines] because living in fear everyday has been too much. No one deserves to live that way." she said.
Vinalay, who worked as an art director for over a decade in Myanmar, penned a letter to Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro Locsin Jr., tugging at the official's (and netizens') heartstrings. She expressed her frustration over the refusal of the Philippine Embassy in Yangon to allow Jon Snow White to go home with her to Manila.
"For us, pets add life to our lonely life when homesickness sets in from time to time. My pets helped me get through the struggles and adjustments in a foreign land. As I said, my pet is my family here, my one and only family,” she said in the letter.
Magic word: Cat
Vinalay explained that she initially wrote the embassy regarding her cat and waited for around two weeks for a response, prompting her to tweet Sec. Locsin.
"Some people don't understand how cats or pets can give you some sort of normalcy especially when you're alone. Like no matter how angry you are, you have to stay alive because you have a cat that needs to eat, drink, and you have to scoop up its poop," she said.
"It's like I have this thing that I can do everyday that makes me feel normal," she said.
Vinalay's plea caugh the attention of Sec. Locsin who responded on Twitter, saying the "cat thing is serious," and instructed the Department of Foreign Affairs to call its Myanmar outpost to allow the repatriation of the feline companion.
"[Y]ou said the magic word: CAT. Cats are family,” Locsin said in a tweet to Vinalay.
Locsin in another tweet said he has allowed pets to be repatriated along with overseas Filipino workers to "help with their transition" back in the Philippines.
"They (DFA) told me that they would allow dogs and pets in the next flights from Myanmar. I think that's helpful because it's not just me. There are other distressed Filipinos who have pets they want to be with," Vinalay said.
On May 29, Jon Snow White officially became the first pet to be repatriated by the Embassy in Yangon along with 55 Filipinos, including Vinalay.
"Aside from Filipinos, the Embassy in Yangon was also able to repatriate its first pet – a domestic short-haired cat named Jon Snow White who is a treasured companion of a Filipino woman also on board the flight," the DFA said.
For people like her who were repatriated, Vinalay said she hopes officials could be more "empathic" since they came from areas of conflict.
To help other overseas pet owners, Vinalay said she has a petition with signatories from other Filipinos in Myanmar who wish to bring their pets with them to the Philippines too.
"It's different for everyone. For some, it could be your family, a boyfriend, or a girlfriend who keeps you sane or provides that sense of normalcy. But for others, it can be something like a plant or a cat," she said.