MAHIRAP MAGING MAHIRAP, NAKAMAMATAY:
A call for national, regional, and city governments and everyday citizens to address the impact of COVID-19 on poor communities
People are being told to wash our hands and stay at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But what happens if you have no water, no food, no money, or no home?
There is a major gap in national and local government approaches to addressing the pandemic. Now on its second iteration of what is being called an ‘enhanced community quarantine’, this government has still extensively failed to factor in the needs of the poor. Without factoring the needs of the poorest and the most vulnerable, continuing to implement short-sighted and insensitive lockdown policies will deepen existing community inequalities, drive poverty and hunger, and magnify the health risks to the entire population.
With approximately one month to go in this enhanced community quarantine, this gap must be addressed urgently.
On 17 March 2020, the Philippine Government declared a National State of Calamity to stem the spread of COVID-19, putting Metro Manila and the whole of Luzon in enhanced community quarantine’. People are now restricted to their homes. All modes of public transportation ranging from the MRT to buses and tricycles have been suspended, with the military and police instructed to man checkpoints across major thoroughfares. Similar to lockdowns instituted in China and affected countries globally, these measures are intended to ‘flatten the curve’, or lessen the rate of infection and transmission to a level that can be handled by the country’s health system. As of March 19, 193 confirmed cases in the country have been recorded. A recent model run by data scientists at the Asian Institute of Management projects an estimated 26,000 COVID-19 cases in the Philippines by end-March if community spread is not contained.
While it is universally agreed that ‘social distancing’ measures are paramount, netizens have criticized how policies have prioritized the rich and powerful: politicians and celebrities are the first to be tested despite the DOH algorithm; testing in posh private hospitals costs PHP 9,000 to process (the kit itself is free). Private vehicles are allowed, but day laborers and dialysis patients alike have been forced to walk for kilometers through multiple checkpoints. Homeless people on the street have been arrested. A viral video of a homeless man on what appears to be the Roxas Boulevard boardwalk asking the government to also think about them in times like this best sums up how current policies are anti-poor. Speaking through a used dirty mask, he stares at the camera, saying, “kinalimutan na kami ng gobyerno (we have been forgotten by government).”
But how bad is the problem, at scale? Metro Manila is one of the densest urban agglomerations in the world, outstripping other major capitals such as Delhi, Paris, or Tokyo. It anchors political, cultural, and economic life on the island-region of Luzon, which contributes to up to 70% of the country’s economic output. Metro Manila’s official population data is estimated at 12.8 million but swells to a daytime population of about 15 million, while servicing a broader catchment area of up to 21.3 million. An estimated 2.5 million people in Metro Manila live in slums, while 3.1 million are homeless. Official government data from the National Household Targeting System of the DSWD shows that there are 15.1 million poor households nationwide, and approximately 300,000 in Metro Manila. An average poor household has 5 to 6 members.
These daytime workers are the men and women who have been stuck at the checkpoints and borders north, east, and south of Metro Manila. Even within NCR, many people live and work in different component cities–all of whom are affected by the suspension of mass transit. JICA data estimates that at least 88% of commuters do not have private vehicles. A sizeable number of citizens live hand-to-mouth, or are forced to risk their lives daily with no-work, no-pay policies. Figures 1 and 2 below map out official statistics on poverty and housing informality in the National Capital Region. Figure 1 is based on the magnitude of poor households in Metro Manila from the dataset provided by the National Household Targeting System of the DSWD.
Source: DSWD Listahanan 2017, DOH 2020 from UNRI, Mapadatos (JR Dizon)
Source: PSA CPH 2010, DOH 2020 from UPRI, MapaDatos (JR Dizon)
Note: Informality was reflected using four variables from the Philippine Census of Population and Housing (2010), beginning with households who enjoy (1) rent-free occupation with consent of owner; and (2) rent-free without consent of owner. Based on the two categories, the result was filtered based on the type of housing, specifically homes where (3) floor area is less than 5 square meters, and whose outer walls are (4) constructed of wood and other light materials.
The families in these poor, deprived, and informal settlement communities described in the maps are often the same areas that are highly vulnerable to flooding, and have limited access to health or other basic social services. In dense settlements in major cities such as Pasig, Mandaluyong, Quezon City, and Manila, the only ways to access these communities is often by tricycle or habal habal-motorcycles.
The basic demography of poor families living in the city is in itself a vulnerability. Poor families are often large, with an average of 3-5 children and with extended family members including grandparents living under the same roof. In most cases, poor families are also single income households, with the head of household serving as the sole and primary breadwinner. In these cramped spaces, ‘social distancing’ is impossible. Even without COVID-19, these poor living conditions also trigger various health issues related to overcrowding and WASH (water and sanitation, hygiene) the most important factor in the spread of the disease. This holds especially true for the elderly population and the children, as this is just another layer to the risks they have to live with on a daily basis.
Source: DSWD Listahanan 2017, DOH 2020 from UNRI, MapaDatos (JR Dizon)
All of this creates situations where ailing grandparents from our city’s slums will choose to walk through checkpoints and possibly contract COVID-19, rather than letting their children and grandchildren starve to death. Once infections are allowed to spread in these dense communities, it will be impossible to manage and contain.
So what can we do, together?
We call on the members of the Interagency Task Force and the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, local governments, private sector organizations, and everyday citizens to help make the implementation of Proclamation No. 929, Declaring a State of Calamity Throughout the Philippines Due to Corona Virus Disease 2019 more inclusive and sensitive to the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable. To do this, we must:
- Find ways to increase community access to water and basic sanitation, particularly with increasing water shortages across the Philippines. Provide soap, hygiene kits, masks, and other basic supplies particularly in dense, deprived, and informal settlements across different cities.
- Water rationing with the help of the Bureau of Fire Protection, Philippine Red Cross and other local organizations with water tanks can be organized.
- Continue regular garbage collection and ramp up sanitation efforts across cities
- Provide social protection support to the poorest families. Specifically, we call on the civilian bureaucracy led by the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation, Department of Social Welfare and Development and the Department of Labor and Employment, together with the Department of Transportation to implement, expand, and augment the existing social welfare programs to assist the affected labor force, marginalized, and other vulnerable sectors. Some of these programs include:
- Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), Modified Conditional Cash Transfer Program (MCCT) for homeless street families, and Unconditional Cash Transfer (UCT) under DSWD
- PhilHealth, where coverage of all costs should be increased to include testing, consultation and hospitalisation related to COVID-19.
- Pantawid Pasada (DOTR/LTFRB), which should be expanded to also cover other affected sectors such as tricycle, jeepney, bus, AUV, and taxi drivers
- TUPAD (Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged /Displaced Workers) under the Department of Labor and Employment
- Ensure that daily wage earners are not forced to leave their homes to feed their families by providing food aid and other incentives for the duration of the lockdown. The government must collaborate with private sector employers to assuage fears that they will lose their jobs if they are unable to physically report for work.
- Support the mobility of frontline services and health workers, and ensure that even citizens without private vehicles will have unimpeded access to health facilities, particularly those who are pregnant, undergoing dialysis or radiation, and in need of other essential health services. Options such as sanitized buses and bicycles can be provided for frontline workers.To the extent possible, provide options for temporary housing for front liners by coordinating with real estate developers, schools, and dormitories. Above all, efforts should be made to ensure that the implementation of checkpoint protocols are done in a humane, respectful, and non-arbitrary fashion, putting the health and safety of citizens first.
- Support the health sector and local scientists to ramp up free testing capability across the Philippines, including for the poorest of the poor. With the absence of adequate laboratory facilities and trained personnel across the country, some of the PHP 27.1-billion package released by the Department of Finance should be channeled towards innovative solutions for addressing testing and the logistics thereof.
- Share accurate and timely information both at the national at grassroots level, in open, anonymized, and high-resolution formats; local languages and channels. Consolidate communication channels for clear messaging and information dissemination and take advantage of existing communication platforms such as the NTC text alarms to provide more useful information, not just brief regular reminders to the public. Data sharing between government agencies using such formats can also help in scientific and policy work in the long run.
- Encourage businesses to support the above mentioned efforts and coordinate with the government to create a singular, streamlined response.
- Extend the deadline of tax collection in consideration of the logistical hurdles posed by the quarantine, and call on banks, businesses, and property owners to extend and/ or defer deadlines of bill payments.
While the evidence described in this call is focused on the experience of Metro Manila, we encourage national and local leaders in quarantined communities in the rest of Luzon and in Visayas and Mindanao to ensure that all policies support the poorest and most vulnerable of our neighbors.
Planning in the Philippines has historically been informed by colonial, extractive, and punitive perspectives that deepen class divides. This is an opportunity to take a hard look at how our cities and neighborhoods have been shaped by spatial inequalities that dictate who has access to resources and who does not, and who can comfortably watch Netflix from behind gated communities while others must walk for hours to find enough money to eat for the day.
As middle-class development workers and practitioners, we must do better. This is a chance to break down the walls and take care of our neighbors and each other.
The UrbanisMO.ph community