BATANGAS, Philippines – At the start of their pandemic response, Punong Barangay Emelita Magsino noticed how some of her neighbors in Barangay Poblacion 05, a commercialized area in Lipa City, Batangas, easily fell victim to false yet easy-to-digest video content on Facebook and YouTube. She started to get worried when false information already made her constituents believe that there was no such thing as COVID-19.
“Mas naniniwala pa sila sa sabi-sabi sa Facebook kesa sa mga doktor. Sabi ko, aba, kapag ganito ang isip ng aking kabarangay, hindi matatapos a’reng pandemic na ito.” Magsino said in her heavy Batangueño accent.
(They believe in unverified claims on Facebook rather than doctors. If that would be the mindset of my constituents, this pandemic would never end.)
To address this growing problem, Magsino, Barangay Councilor Doris Laygo, and Barangay Health Worker Mariane Davalos employed solutions that adopted feminine management approaches. They regularly conducted barangay assemblies to promote transparency, distributed leaflets to establish connection, and conducted house-to-house visits to practice empathy among their constituents.
During the pandemic, the country’s smallest political unit has moved from negotiating petty neighborhood conflicts to the problem-solving of complex tasks thrown by the national government, particularly regarding COVID-19 response and election-related matters.
Amid the barangays’ effort to address the pandemic, another problem needed addressing. Disinformation on social media continues to spread like wildfire, making ordinary citizens vulnerable to manipulation. In Barangay Poblacion 05, its women community officers immediately noticed how false and misleading information affected the implementation of government policies, programs, and activities.
“Naalala ko noong mga unang araw ng pag-aalok namin ng bakuna, may mga ayaw dahil bago pa lang daw yung bakuna…Meron nga na mga residente na hindi kami pinapapasok o iniintindi. Yung iba naman, natakot [dahil] sa Dengvaxia noon,” Davalos, a Barangay Health Worker for 15 years, said.
(I remember when we initially promoted the vaccination drive, I encountered some residents who didn’t want to get vaccinated because they said the vaccines were relatively new… Some didn’t even let us in their house or wouldn’t entertain us. For others, they were scared due to a prior experience with Dengvaxia.)
Vaccine hesitancy has been a problem in the Philippines in recent years. In a 2019 report by the country’s health department, the Dengvaxia controversy is one of the reasons for the decreasing trust of people to vaccines.
To address this, Magsino used her State of the Barangay Address as a platform to debunk misleading statements on the Social Amelioration Program and COVID-19 vaccination hoaxes. Through the regular conduct of general assemblies which have gone virtual since the pandemic started, she hopes to promote transparency in the barangay.
According to the barangay chief executive, susceptibility to disinformation will increase if the government is not transparent with its stakeholders.
“Kung transparent ka…[at] ina-address mo ang tunay na problema ng iyong lugar at hindi iyong kung ano lamang ang gusto mong i-address; at pinaprioritize mo ang pangangailan ng iyong mga ka-barangay, maganda ang magiging serbisyo mo.” she said.
(If you practice transparency and you address the real problems of your community without sugarcoating; and if you prioritize the needs of your constituents, your service will be efficient.)
The barangay officials of Poblacion 05 were initially worried about the turnout of their virtual general assembly for they were accustomed to gathering hundreds of spectators during the onsite conduct of such programs. Much to their surprise, their latest online assembly last March 21, 2021 accumulated thousands of views and hundreds of engagements.
Aside from being transparent, Magsino also believes that barangay officials must lead by example.
“Nagpameeting ako sa Barangay Officials [at] sinabi ko sa kanila na kinakailangang tayong mga nanunungkulan ang unang magpabakuna. Mahirap mag-sales talk sa ating constituents kung mismong tayo ay hindi magpapabakuna,” she said.
(I called for a meeting with Barangay Officials and I told them that we should be the first ones to receive the vaccines. It is hard to convince our constituents to join the vaccination campaign if we ourselves are not vaccinated.)
Members of the Barangay Health Emergency Response Team (BHERT) were the first ones to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Poblacion 05. Seeing the BHERT whom they trust getting vaccinated, qualified individuals from the community eventually participated in the mass vaccination program of the national government.
Both Magsino and Davalos, meanwhile, also agree that posting public service announcements on social media is not enough to fight disinformation since some people are not technologically literate. According to them, barangay officials must personally connect with their residents to effectively debunk misinformation.
This is why, in Poblacion 05, they still use leaflets as a form of information dissemination, reaching those who don’t have access to the Internet. Through this initiative, the barangay leaders discovered that traditional media still sparks personal interaction and heart-to-heart talks, which are critical for engagement between leaders and constituents.
The move was proven effective since Poblacion 05 remains to be one of the barangays in Lipa City that has a high vaccination rate and low number of COVID-19 cases.
Davalos also shared that through their house-to-house initiatives and personal conversations, some residents offer snacks to them as a sign of appreciation for their work – a small gesture which she considers valuable to her vocation in the barangay.
Empathy, motherly love
Another issue being plagued by disinformation is the upcoming presidential elections. However, the law mandates that barangay officials must not engage in partisan politics.
Laygo, the only female barangay councilor in Poblacion 05, pointed out that we should exhibit empathy to those victimized by false information. During their regular house-to-house visits for the information dissemination of their upcoming programs, barangay officials try to remind their constituents about the importance of knowing the background of the candidates, especially now that the election draws near.
“Ang sinasabi ko sa aking mga ka-barangay, kung ano yung nasa puso nila, iyon ang sundin. Alamin ang mga nagawa, at naitulong, ang background, ang kakayahan. Mentally, physically, and emotionally kailangang stable. Right ng bawat isa na pumili. Yun nga lang, choose wisely,” she emphasized.
(I tell my constituents to choose what their heart desires. Search for the candidates’ accomplishments, contributions, background, and skills. They must be mentally, physically, and emotionally stable. Although we have the right to choose anybody, it must be done wisely.)
When asked to identify the distinctive element of female leadership, these barangay leaders had this common answer: motherly love.
They emphasized that treating their constituents as their own children helped them to be more persistent and passionate in persuading people to disregard false and misleading claims. After all, no mother wants her children to become victims of disinformation.
“Ang isang ina ay alam kung ano ang kailangan ng kanyang mga anak. Lahat ng aspeto pinakikialaman.May mother’s instinct kami…Magaling mamuno ang mga babae. Take into consideration yung mga gobyernong babae ang namumuno.” Magsino said.
(A mother knows the needs of her children. She manages all aspects of such. We have a mother’s instinct. Women are great leaders. Take into consideration the governments led by women.)
Most of the successful pandemic responses from both the local and international scenes were headlined by women. A prime example of what openness to feminine management approaches can achieve.
How about your barangay officials? How do they prevent the spread of lies?– Rappler.com
Jose Orlando Polon is a Rappler intern from De La Salle Lipa. He is a senior taking up Bachelor of Arts in Communication, Major in Socio-Cultural and Behavioral Communication.