[ANALYSIS] Hard choices in Slip Zero, Barangay 20, Tondo, Manila

'Hindi po kami namamalimos sa gobyerno. Marunong kaming mag-hanapbuhay. Pero ngayon nawala sa amin yun. Paano na kami, paano na ang pamilya namin?' asks community leader Bernadette Sabalza

Bernadette Sabalza tells her story

Like all other Metro Manila communities, Brgy 20 of Tondo went under enhanced community quarantine beginning March 15. But while other families worried about how to protect their loved ones from the virus, the families in Brgy 20 worried about how their loved ones would survive hunger. 

Ate Bernadette, the leader of Samahang Magkakapitbahay sa Slip Zero, a People’s Organization in North Harbor, Tondo tells their story during the first 4 weeks of the quarantine. 

Some 15,000 families in Brgy 20 have been cooped up in their small, crowded home areas. This lockdown has had dire consequences for the residents. Lacking advance notice from the authorities, they had no time to prepare for an extended community quarantine (ECQ) that would mean no income for their families. Instead, the government’s presence came in the increased number of military and police men in their area to ensure no one violated the curfew from 8 pm to 5 am.

It was no surprise that the community felt uneasy seeing numbers of soldiers and police all around, remembering as they did the EJKs (extra judicial killings) of recent years. They began asking, “Totoo po ba ‘yang coronavirus na yan? Baka ginagawa lang ‘yan para matakot kami at para sundin na lang ang orders na mag-stay lang kami sa bahay.” (Is that coronavirus for real? Maybe they’re just saying that to make us afraid, so that we would follow their orders about staying inside.) 

Considering the lack of information since March about any concrete government plans for feeding families, if the quarantine is further extended into May and even June, hunger, not the transmission and acquisition of COVID-19, will become their main worry. (READ: Metro Manila, Cebu City, Laguna under ‘modified’ ECQ until May 31)

In the first 3 weeks of the community quarantine, reported Ate Bernadette, there had been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 patients. For people showing flu-like symptoms, they were treated with over-the-counter medicines and all had recovered. People were afraid to go to the hospitals, fearing total isolation there. When queried about the fear of getting the virus, she responded, “Natatakot po kami pero mas natatakot kami na magutom.” (Yes, we’re afraid, but we’re more terrified of going hungry.) (READ: Thousands of Metro Manila’s poorest left out as deadly coronavirus spreads)

During the first week, she and 140 other members of the community received food donations from their partner NGO, Urban Poor Associates. UPA had taught them to save P15,000 pesos as emergency funds for their members. They also received support from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women of Asia-Pacific (CATWAP). For the hundreds of families who did not belong to their organization and lacked access to any financial or food aid, they contacted other organizations to help the community as a whole, and several responded. 

During the second week, with UPA’s encouragement, Ate Bernadette contacted the Office of Vice President Leni Robredo, which sent their community 1,000 food packs. Other civil society groups also started to help, like Paghilom of Fr. Flavie Villanueva and De La Salle University friends who had formerly supported families of EJK victims in their community. 

Even as help kept coming, there were many more families who needed support and were in dire need of answers as to how they could start providing for their families. At this point Ate Bernadette suggested, “Bumaba na sila sa komunidad at tignan nila mismo ang nangyayari.” (Just come down to the community and see for themselves what’s happening here.)

On the third week, food packs from the government began arriving, which was good, but two kilos of rice and 5 cans of meat loaf for a family of 10 was way too small.  Some residents who owned resources, like a cellphone or a watch, started to pawn or sell them to get some money. Others resorted to picking up discarded vegetables at the markets. The people were getting more and more desperate. 

Bernadette shared that she had furnished the Presidential Commission on Urban Poor (PCUP) the master list of needy families and unemployed workers in their community. But their help is yet to be felt. As for the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) program allocating 5,000 pesos for informal workers who have lost livelihoods and income, it gave so many requirements, this made it almost impossible for people to comply. (READ: The pandemic is a grave subplot in Metro Manila’s housing horror story)

Then on the fourth week, the P1,000 aid from the City of Manila had reached their community. Again, good, but during that week, 200 families did not receive the subsidy. That created problems. Uncertainty about continuing help to feed their families heightened frustration levels. As fears over their survival reached maximum levels, concerns about the virus dropped to the minimum. Boxing matches and bingo along the streets also brought temporary relief on April 13.

This flagrant violation of the quarantine protocols eventually worked in their favor, however, because it caught the attention of the local government. It was then that finally they began to see health workers in their area. Soon 21 individuals were taken to the hospital or quarantine center as Persons Under Investigation (PUI). Swab testing and contact tracing started in the neighborhoods. The remaining 200 families finally received the subsidy.

Amid everything they went through, Bernadette just wanted to clarify, “Hindi po kami namamalimos sa gobyerno. Marunong kaming mag-hanapbuhay. Pero ngayon nawala sa amin yun. Paano na kami, paano na ang pamilya namin?” (We’re not beggars appealing to the government. We know how to work and earn. But now that has disappeared. So what’s going to happen to us? To our families?)

As the lifting of the quarantine remains uncertain, their daily struggle for survival continues. 

Researcher Gerlene Reyes-Guerrero comments

The coronavirus pandemic has been pushed far back in Brgy 20’s consciousness because poverty, unemployment, and hunger loom as the bigger battles ahead. Since they are not allowed to work, they have no choice but to rely on the government and share their contacts with humanitarian civil society groups. They would rather work though. As for threats, the more pressing one in their view is not so much COVID-19 but hunger in the family. 

How do we know that other barangays do not have similarly overwhelming concerns? How can we then ensure their safety and that of the general public? Humanity is facing its greatest reminder that now, more than ever, we should act as a community uplifting and protecting one another. Ate Bernadette’s story makes it crystal clear that to succeed in battling a pandemic, no one should be left behind. – Rappler.com

Ms Bernadette Sabalza, President, Samahang Magkakapitbahay sa Slip Zero, Brgy 20, North Harbor, Tondo was interviewed on cellphone from March 26 to April 15, 2020 by Ms Gerlene Reyes-Guerrero.

Ms Reyes-Guerrero, who is pursuing a PhD in Philippine Studies at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, wrote up Ms Sabalza’s account and her own commentary as part of a class in Engaged Anthropology under Prof Mary Racelis. She received Ms Sabalza’s approval to disseminate their joint report publicly.