[OPINION] Happy in Happyland: Notes from Tondo during the lockdown
I’m an Asian Canadian currently residing in Metro Manila. During this time of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), I have been volunteering with the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture (ISACC), a research and training organization which, out of sheer compassion, decided to respond to the hunger of pockets of poor communities round about UP Village. These quickly expanded to other communities that might otherwise get missed because they are not in LGU or DSWD lists – near-poor in "no work, no pay" jobs, stranded students and lumads, street dwellers, migrants from Marawi, and others unreached by any government assistance. (READ: Thousands of Metro Manila’s poorest left out as deadly coronavirus spreads)
While it’s been meaningful to be able to provide relief for families in need, I’m more grateful for what these communities have been teaching me. One of these communities is Happyland.
One revelation I’ve had during this pandemic is how differently the rich and poor are impacted by the ECQ. Those in Manila with salaries, a stocked pantry, and good internet are challenged at most with adjusting to a new schedule of online meetings and finding creative ways to stay at home without going crazy. Meanwhile, the urban poor are worried about their next meal since they’ve been unable to work and have no savings. How do these same families stay inside their poorly ventilated dwellings in 40-degree weather? And what happens when unexpected fires and typhoons hit them? (READ: 'Walang-wala na': Poor Filipinos fear death from hunger more than coronavirus)
Abiding by ECQ protocol, like physical distancing, seems more about privilege rather than a measure designed to help protect peoples’ lives. How does one choose between risking exposure to the coronavirus, going hungry, or dying from heat stroke? The reality is that although much of the world is affected by the pandemic, the urban poor are the most severely impacted.
Just after a big fire in Barangay 105, otherwise known as Happyland, ISACC was contacted for urgent support. Our team responded as quickly as we could, packing food that would feed families for at least one week.
During our visit to Happyland, our team was escorted into the barangay with other volunteers from Tondo. Although it was already dark, the main walkway was filled with people buying snacks, chatting with friends, or sitting around. If you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t think a community quarantine was happening there. The only reminder of ECQ was the presence of a uniformed barangay tanod who accompanied us the entire time and regularly reminded folks to practice physical distancing. The reality is that physical distancing is almost impossible to practice in these tightly packed communities.
I’ve visited urban poor areas before that evening in Manila, but never at night and never at Happyland. My poor visibility and unfamiliarity with the area meant that I was dependent on my companions. I relied on the faint light from their cellphones to catch glimpses of whether I was stepping into a pile of mud or a puddle they call burak. Most times I was unsure whether I was walking on solid ground, on unstable wooden planks, or beside the edge of a cliff. Moving through this barangay felt like a maze as we twisted and turned into different alleyways.
Our first stop was a makeshift area in the middle of the barangay where those who lost their homes in the fire were staying. It was an area covered by tarps and where families were also segregated, only with tarps between them. The area was crowded, with many children wandering around. In order to reduce our movement in these crowded quarters, we interviewed recipients at the edge of the tented area and gathered some more data so as to have a more accurate profile of who really needed assistance.
To locate some who were already on our list, we traveled further into the barangay. We passed by several people staring at us from their homes and greeted others we crossed paths with along the way. We saw people scavenging, cooking, and playing. We walked by many families where, because their places had no walls or roofs, you could see them eating their dinner together and talking. Other families were sleeping on plywood with flimsy plastic sheets as their walls. Some of the dwellings we visited seemed to have no light at all.
In the end, though my conversations with the people that night were brief, I appreciated being able to speak directly with residents of this community. It was important to see the real conditions of people who struggle just to survive the day, and to realize that life becomes even more challenging when they are then forced to deal with compounding factors like fires and a pandemic. Such groups end up suffering the most.
Yet what really struck me about visiting Happyland is that life there goes on. People are continuing with their daily activities in spite of the hardships they face. Some people we encountered even appeared happy and were laughing with us, even inviting us to share their meager meal. As a foreigner, this generosity and resilience has been a great wonder to me.
Is this kind of response merely a coping mechanism? Or is it possible that people can be happy in spite of their difficult circumstances? Perhaps laughter is a visible manifestation of resiliency, a gift of the poor to us. Not a fire, a typhoon nor a global pandemic will stop them from finding a glimmer of light in the darkness. – Rappler.com
Jasmine Kwong is a Christian advocate for the care of creation with a background in conservation biology and community development.