MANILA, Philippines – Concerns are mounting for informal workers and urban poor communities across Metro Manila, as the sweeping restrictions on travel and city-wide curfews have left thousands of the country’s indigent with little means to support themselves.
A full week into the mega city’s enhanced quarantine, communities have now reported no updates or contact from government officials, with many fearing they won’t have the ongoing support needed to cope during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now killed over 10,000 people worldwide.
“I still have supplies, but I’m not sure when they will run out. I have 1kg of rice to feed a family of five, some canned goods and instant noodles. I think it will last the next two days. So many people here can’t work given the restrictions. We need food,” said Virgie Lorica, an urban poor community leader in Caloocan City.
The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) reports around 38% of its population work within the informal economy, which includes jobs such as tricycle and pedicab drivers, jeepney drivers and road-side sellers. Many of these citizens also live in informal settlements, or slums.
With the entire country told to stay at home, all informal workers have no option to avail of financial assistance from an employer, and will rely heavily on help from the government.
Meanwhile, commentators and netizens alike have criticized the government’s response to the urban poor’s plight, following comments earlier this week from Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo who suggested, “no one dies of hunger, even for a month.”
The comments came before the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) suspended several subsidy programs for the country’s poorest between March 15 – April 15, citing adherence to government quarantine guidelines, given many programs require citizens to receive cash transfers in-person.
While the DWSD has since stated they are working on reinstating some assistance programs for those in need, Erik Villanueva, Local Governance Coordinator at the Institute for Popular Democracy in Quezon City said that the suspensions were indeed a cruel blow for urban poor communities across the metro.
“This is the time when those communities need the subsidies the most. It leaves many families and senior citizens with zero income whatsoever. That is concerning,” Villanueva said.
“You also need to consider a large percentage of poor families, maybe around 60-70%, are not eligible for any subsidy program because their income is above a certain threshold. However, they still have very low incomes overall and will need assistance going forward to feed their families,” he said, adding:
“Hopefully, the government will release special cash subsidies for a broad range of indigent citizens. Unfortunately, we’ve heard little from officials regarding this type of support.”
Villanueva said that such “special” subsidies would not be without precedent, referencing the cash handouts given to jeepney drivers during the fuel crisis of Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo’s government in the early 2000s.
Rudy*, a street vendor working in Manila’s Santa Mesa district, whose family is based over 20- kilometers away, said that he has no option but to keep working, as his wife and children were still waiting for food and emergency supplies from the government.
“I’m only making 100 pesos per day at this point. Before the lockdown, I usually made around 500 (pesos). I haven’t been able to return home to my family for five days. because there’s no transport. It’s so far, I can’t walk,” said Rudy.
“I hope the government will take care of us – this quarantine could go longer than they’re saying” he added.
Reflecting on the government’s current plans for the poor, Villanueva asserted that the measures so far were mostly geared on formal workers and the wealthy:
“While they’ve made televised assurances the military and local governments will help the poor, current measures and support are really only conducive to the middle and upper class; those who have enough money and a vehicle to hunker down, or those who will be receiving assistance from their employer.
“Of course, no one in their proper mind could question the necessity of the lockdown to contain the virus, but more action is needed to address the questions and concerns of poor communities on how they will make it through this crisis.
“To-date though, I think what some officials have made clear: for a government who is insensitive to the issue of extrajudicial killings of its citizens, there’s every chance they’ll be insensitive towards the hunger of its people.”
As of Sunday, March 22, the Philippines has 307 confirmed cases, 19 deaths, and 13 recoveries. – Rappler.com
*Individual asked to conceal his surname.