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Solidarity and sharing in an unequal society: Covid-19 in the Philippines

As the cases of Covid-19 continue to grow in the Philippines the level of inequality in the country has become increasingly clear, we need much more than a vaccine is need to treat that.

Filomin Gutierrez
2 May 2020
Fire volunteers spray disinfectant on a street in Mandaluyong City on Monday, 27 April 2020.
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Larry Monserate Piojo/SIPA USA/PA Images
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As I struggle to finish this piece on April 17, 2020 the Philippines has so far recorded 5,660 Covid-19 positive cases, 362 deaths, and 435 recoveries, topping the volume of positive cases amongst other Southeast Asian Countries over Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. It has been a month since March 15, the start of the lockdown in Metro Manila and the rest of Luzon to contain the spread of the virus. A month earlier, on February 13, at the University of the Philippines Diliman where I teach, classes were suspended and employees were advised to stay home.

While professors and staff transcended the technical challenges of online meeting platforms, attempts at online classes were saddled by lack of access to stable internet connection by many. Our students protested the resumption of classes via online platforms, stating the inequality of internet access for different students will only advance the education to some but not to others, a persistent inequality among the profound socioeconomic inequalities in Philippine society. Moreover, students argued they were not in the “right headspace” at a time of anxiety and uncertainty. Little do they know that their professors also struggle to finish half-done research writing or attend online faculty meetings. Urging the university to devote its resources and energies to help end the pandemic instead of reaching for its academic targets as if it’s business as usual, the students demanded to end the semester and mass promote students with a grade of “pass” for all.

How has Covid19 affected the life of Filipinos? Slowly and significantly. The first case came from one of the approximately 8.2 million tourists who come to enjoy the warmth of our tropical islands, many of which depend much on the tourism industry. News and social media outlets reported that tourists from China flew into the country in late January despite concerns about the coronavirus outbreak. The number of positive cases were few and far between in February, but rapidly rose by March. Filipino migrant workers from abroad and middleclass families coming from vacation were quarantined. Meanwhile travel permits of government workers such as myself were revoked as the University mourned the death of a professor, an expert on Chinese studies who died from complications of the coronavirus, which she was believed to have contracted iwhen she attended a conference in Paris.

The start of the enhanced community quarantine in the Luzon group of islands, home 57 million out of the 109 million nationwide population, signaled the beginning of the catastrophic impact of the pandemic on Philippine economy. A large number of workers were placed in a no work-no pay arrangement as businesses went on a forced hiatus. In the huge campus of the state university where I work, the more than 400 construction workers under various contractors have been stranded and continue to experience hunger, even to the point of scavenging for food in the natural resources of the campus. Maintenance workers were left to fend for themselves as their agencies contracted by the university wait for an assurance of collection before the release the workers’ salaries. This This wait-and-see approach within the bureaucracy spelled days of hunger for these precariats. Thankfully, donations quickly trickled into the fund set up by my home college, but difficulties in finding ways to hand them cash donations started to appear. We realized that most janitors and guards have already pawned their ATM cards. Who pawns ATM cards with their personal identification numbers revealed? Apparently, many people, and the practice is a common among the poor even before the pandemic.

Government response and people’s frustrations

As the numbers steadily climbed, Rodrigo Duterte, the popular strongman president of the Philippines backpedaled on his earlier statement for Filipinos “not to be afraid of the virus,” underestimating its virulence. His trademark of long, off-script speeches began with assurances such as “I have money” to address the needs of the people in surviving the pandemic to “the funds are not enough, I may need to sell government assets.” After having been granted emergency powers by the Philippine Congress, apprehensions were raised on the possibility of the president and his cronies abusing this authority by, for example, taking over corporations construed to be antipathetic to the current administration. Consistent with his aggressive anti-crime stance, Duterte instructed the police and army personnel to “shoot them dead” persons who would sow disorder during the enhanced community quarantine.

The voice of the hungry became louder than the voice of those afraid of the disease

The government soon rolled out for the poorest 18 million Filipino households the Social Amelioration Program, a cash assistance program of approximately US$100 to $160, or one to two weeks’ worth of minimum wage. As the national policy to combat the pandemic fell into place, expectations ran high on the implementers of the program on the ground: local government units (LGUs) of cities and municipalities. LGUs tapped into their reserve funds to provide households with relief goods (mostly food consisting of rice and canned goods) and mobilized disinfection efforts.

Immediate complaints by local government units arrived as demands from the actual number of households needing aid exceeded the available funds. Barangay (village) heads complained, “Our positions have made executioners out of us, as if we get to say who gets to live and who dies in distributing the aid.” Procedural verifications and monitoring in anticipation of auditing procedures caused delays in distribution, with critics arguing that the urgency of the crisis should override the finetuning of administrative processes. The delays turned into the quick realization that the national budget could not cover the people’s needs amidst public demand to expand the coverage to the poor beyond the 4Ps program.

The voice of the hungry became louder than the voice of those afraid of the disease not only in Metro Manila. “Mamamatay kami, hindi sa sa virus kundi sa gutom (We will die not from the virus but of hunger),” my mother quoted the poor citizens’ pronouncements in Capiz, my home province in the Visayas region, when I called in to check on them. The growing dissatisfaction over economic relief efforts caused Duterte to backtrack on his claim of an abundance of funds. In fact, he declared in another speech that he is willing to sell government assets to fund measures against the pandemic, if needed. The public anxieties escalated with the increasing number of positive cases. Frustrations heightened over the privileging of VIP access to while hundreds of those actually dying of the virus only received their tests post-mortem. Criticisms recalled earlier questions of budget allocation such as the slashing of calamity funds for the incoming year, the increased budget for Duterte’s confidential and intelligence funds, and even the superfluous ceremonial installations in hosting the 2019 Southeast Asian Games. In late March, #OustDuterte trended on social media, to which Duterte responded that only the military and the police can, in fact, take him out of power.

Online discord and public solidarity

As expected of Filipinos as one of the world’s top users of social media, the online ruckus looked like a battle between the dilawan (those who criticize Duterte) versus the DDS (Die Hard Duterte Supporters). Supporters of the administration defended Duterte’s strong-arm approach to the quarantine, saying that the arrest warning was meant for citizens who are pasaway (disobedient or unruly), communist insurgents, and leftist groups who may take advantage of the crisis to sow rebellion.

The pandemic brought out latent interclass tensions as seen in social media. Complaints came forth, mostly coming from the middle class or the emancipated working class against the lower class consisting of households dependent on the informal sector who were the first to become unemployed. The poorest of the poor beneficiaries became targets for criticism. “The poor are poor because they are tamad (lazy)” was a common theme posted by the frustrated netizens. Self-identifying themselves as “middle class,” many complained that the government prioritizes the poor during calamities even when the hardworking “middle class,”­­—that is, “those (of us) who live in subdivisions” (low to medium-cost housing developments) and the taxpayers—also deserve help and attention during this crisis.

These online exchanges do not necessarily evolve into a meaningful debate. They are, however, snapshots of the depths of Philippine’s unequal society. A case of inter-class solidarity emerged for example after the arrest of urban poor residents in Quezon City on April 1 when they gathered on a street near the slums with handwritten banners “kailangan namin ng pagkain, (we need food).” After having been arrested for protesting without a permit and in violation of the anti-quarantine orders, the residents were met with rough treatment by police officers, drawing sympathy from well-off individuals who offered to pay the bail of US$300 per person. “I’ll sponsor one. Please give the details” tweeted a young celebrity in response to a post of an activist leader. “I’ll bail out four,” volunteered an actress in the wave of rising sympathy for the hungry protesters.

These bursts of charity indicated the people’s willingness to share and give up a part of what is theirs, time-wise and property-wise. Could these charitable impulses be translated to a kind of solidarity that transcends neoliberal impetus of self-interest and profit into solidarities of equitability

The pockets of protests and expressions of suffering easily catches public attention when met with violence because of their journalistic, if cinematic value. But much of the suffering of the poor involved the agonizing maneuvers of packing a household of ten persons in a shanty space for give in wait of government relief packages to arrive.

From spontaneous to organized: Response of civil society actors

On the other hand, donations flooded from locals organized by individuals, groups of friends, family networks, churches, high school batchmates, universities and other non-government groups indicated the robust potential for civil society response to the pandemic. Appeals to gather funds, again through social media, were quickly met.

Social media became awash with news of generosity from those who can spare any amount to help others. Improvised personal protective equipment for health frontliners were distributed and donated to hospitals to address the inadequacy of supplies, food packs were given to the homeless, and cash transfers were virtually wired to those in need by strangers. Communities bought fresh produce from local farmers in the neighboring regions to be distributed to the hungry; chefs cooked for free.

These bursts of charity indicated the people’s willingness to share and give up a part of what is theirs, time-wise and property-wise. Could these charitable impulses be translated to a kind of solidarity that transcends neoliberal impetus of self-interest and profit into solidarities of equitability? Can these self-sacrifices from the individuals and groups ensconced comfortably in their homes during lockdown translate into a more institutionalized design for less unequal Philippines, say, a more decisive urban and rural land reform, a food security system that supports our local farmers, or a cessation of labor contractualization? Could overseas Filipino workers return to a home country and find a living worth staying for, or will it be back to business as usual for Filipinos?

In times of an upheaval such as this unprecedented pandemic, we can get into a headspace to imagine a more hopeful future. Its realization, however, is another matter. Such a future requires fighting a different kind of structural virus, one that requires much more than discovering a vaccine for a novel coronavirus such as Covid-19.

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