‘Walang-wala na’: Poor Filipinos fear death from hunger more than coronavirus

Rambo Talabong, Jodesz Gavilan

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‘Walang-wala na’: Poor Filipinos fear death from hunger more than coronavirus
Rappler speaks with 6 residents from different poor communities. They tell the same story: President Rodrigo Duterte promised them food. But they have received too little to nothing at all.

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MANILA, Philippines – If not by coronavirus, they believe death will come from hunger.

Two weeks have passed since President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire Luzon on lockdown or “enhanced community quarantine” to contain the explosion of novel coronavirus cases in the country.

This means people are not allowed to leave their homes unless for “essential reasons” – which, for the government means, purchasing food or working to keep medical care and the supply chain of goods going.

For residents of poor communities, where most people do not qualify for exemptions, the lockdown signified less to no income.

President Duterte assured them they would be given food through their barangays, municipalities, and their city local governments. He even asked for unprecedented special powers from Congress to make it happen.

Rappler spoke with 6 residents from different poor communities, and their accounts point to a president failing to keep his promise. Some of them – neglected by their local officials – are from urban poor communities who have received help barely enough for their families. This has forced them to look for food elsewhere: the church, non-governmental organizations – others have taken to the streets.

Some 21 residents from the urban poor community of Sitio San Roque in Quezon City walked out of their homes on Wednesday, April 1, demanding that they be given help. Using the government’s guidelines against mass gatherings, cops arrested them.

The simmering frustrations of the poor are one of the major considerations in a crucial question for the Duterte government in these critical times: how can the government save people from both hunger and COVID-19?

Until the government answers this question, millions of Filipinos will continue to face the risk of starvation if not the infectious disease itself.

‘Di ako natatakot sa COVID-19. Ang nakakatakot diyan ay mamatay kang dilat sa gutom.’


When the protest occurred outside San Roque, Inday Bagasbas, 64, was no longer surprised. She knew for days that many inside their community had been starving. Her own family felt hunger daily.

Bagasbas lived with her two sons, an in-law, and 3 grandchildren under one roof. One of her sons worked as an agent selling condominiums, and the other worked in the IT field, but has not received his salary for February. Her in-law worked as a janitor. With the lockdown, none of them could earn.

This was a shared suffering inside Sitio San Roque, where most residents worked as construction and factory workers who slowly became penniless after the lockdown.

According to data compiled by the Save San Roque alliance, there are about  6,000 families inside the community. Some 80% of them earn below the family living wage per month. One in every 5 families has 6 to 10 members.

Bagasbas and her family managed during the first few days, holding on to the belief that they would receive help from their barangay. But since the lockdown, no help from the government has come to their door. 

The barangay sent assistance through representatives in San Roque, she said, but these representatives have given relief packs only to people they knew personally. While San Roque is considered an informal settlement, Bagasbas pointed out that many of its residents were still voters whom the officials wanted to court.

COMMUNITY QUARANTINE. Sitio San Roque is less crowded outside during the lockdown. Photo courtesy of the Save San Roque Alliance

Nakakainis, nakakagalit, nakakasama ng loob. Kung ‘di ka botante, wala silang pakialam sa iyo (It is irritating, it is infuriating, it is frustrating. If you are not a voter, they don’t care about you),” Bagasbas said in a phone interview with Rappler on Tuesday, March 31.

This goes against the government’s policy of distributing goods regardless of political inclination, and regardless of voter registration. But with barangay officials left unsupervised, selective assistance has become a pattern in the communities. Cops could not oversee the distribution as they were asked by the community to stay outside the community’s borders.

Bagasbas turned to her organization, the urban poor group Kadamay, as well as the Save San Roque alliance, which have given her rice and canned goods. Many residents were not as lucky to have the groups to turn to, she said, so she gave away their extra food to her starving neighbors. 

Bagasbas is also uncertain whether these groups could keep them afloat longer if the lockdown continues. The government has not given any clear signs whether it would lift or extend the quarantine.

Being a senior citizen, Bagasbas is vulnerable to COVID-19, but she said she and her neighbors fear hunger more than the disease.

Di ako natatakot sa COVID-19 na ‘yan, kasi kaya mong gamutin ang sarili mo. Ang nakakatakot diyan ay mamatay kang dilat sa gutom (I am not afraid of that COVID-19, because you can cure yourself. What’s frightening is dying with your eyes open because of hunger),” Bagasbas said.

‘Ang apo ko, toyo at mantika at kanin ang kinakain’

MOUTHS TO FEED. Sarah Celiz shares photos of her with her grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Celiz

In the Celiz household, there are 15 mouths to feed. 

Sarah Celiz, 55, her husband Alan, 61, their pregnant daughter, and 12 grandchildren – the oldest being 14, and the youngest just 2.

With their household size, it’s impossible to follow physical distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of diseases like COVID-19. It could only be done by leaving their homes, which then violates the government’s lockdown and curfew rules. However, COVID-19 is the least of their worries.

They lived in a depressed area of Barangay 176 in Caloocan City. Her husband painted houses in Silang, Cavite, providing the only lifeline for their family. With the lockdown, it’s been cut.

Sarah and Alan used to have sons, Almon and Dicklie – the father of their 12 grandchildren. But the two were killed, believed to be by cops, just months apart in 2017. 

Almon, 32, died on February 6, 2017, while he was attending a wake. Dicklie, 30, was picked up by unidentified men in August 2017, then was found dead in an open field.

Masaklap na naiwan sa akin ang kanilang anak. Dose sa akin,” Celiz said in a phone interview with Rappler on March 31. (It is unfortunate that they left their children. All 12 of them are now with me.)

TIME TO EAT. Sarah Celiz eats with her grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Celiz

With the lockdown, they knew they could not survive without help. Like other families, they waited. She said they only got help on March 30, and they received only a kilogram of rice and a can of sardines. She said the distribution was also selective.

Iba ginugutom, ‘yung iba binibigyan. Parang kailangan mo pa magmakaawa para ikaw ang bigyan,” Celiz said. (Others are left to starve, others are given food. It’s like you have to beg before they give you.)

They have so far depended on the help of the church. She said they received at least 10 kilograms of rice, canned goods, and sugar from Father Flavie Villanueva, who leads outreach programs for families of victims in President Rodrigo Duterte’s unrelenting anti-drug campaign.

Without much money, they sometimes resort to eating rice with condiments. Her youngest grandchild, Daniela Marize, could not even drink milk. They let her drink instant coffee instead.

Ang apo ko, toyo at mantika at kanin ang kinakain. Tiis-tiis lang talaga hanggang matapos ito,” Celiz said. (My grandchildren eat soy sauce, oil, and rice. We just have to hang on until this ends.)

‘Nangako silang hindi nila kami pababayaan’

AROMA. A family spends time inside their house in Aroma in Tondo, Manila. File photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler


Fear penetrated the air inside the Aroma Temporary Housing in Tondo, Manila when news of the enhanced community quarantine broke. It wasn’t the novel coronavirus that worried residents the most, but the thought of not being able to work and provide for their families. 

The physical distancing the government called for was also nearly impossible. In Aroma, residents are housed in 34 two-story buildings made of old wood and scavenged corrugated iron sheets, home to no less than 120 families. 

The lockdown worsened their already difficult life. Now people are breaking quarantine and going out to the streets, 31-year-old Arlene told Rappler, just to find any opportunity to get enough money for the day’s meals.

Hindi rin minsan nangyayari [iyong physical distancing] kasi saan kami kukuha ng makakakain? Naghahanap ang mga tao ng pang-kabuhayan nila para makatawid sa isang araw,” Arlene said. 

(Physical distancing rarely happens here because where are we going to get food if we follow it? Everyone’s just trying to find a way to survive each day.)

Arlene’s husband used to bring home a little over P3,000 after his weekly 6-day stint at a construction site. The gruelling work allowed him to earn P500 a day. Now he drives a tricycle – banned by the government under lockdown – weaving through narrow streets for passengers, earning P200 daily if he’s lucky.

He is very careful not to pass any checkpoints or even catch the eye of roving authorities lest he be detained. After all, a day spent in the barangay hall means no food for his 3 children, no water that costs P5 per container.

Yes, they are scared of getting infected. But they are also worried about their children sleeping on an empty stomach. Some days, a neighbor cooks enough meals to share with other families, but they cannot go on like this.

Kung hindi ka nga magkasakit sa virus, gutom ka at ang pamilya mo naman, lalo na mga anak mo,” Arlene said. “Hindi puwedeng makulong lang sa bahay at maghintay ng rasyon na hindi dumadating naman, kailangan talaga gagawa kami ng paraan.

(Even if we don’t get sick because of the virus, we’ll still end up hungry, especially our children. We cannot just be locked up at home and wait for rations that don’t come, we really need to find a way.) 

LIFE INSIDE. Residents of Aroma in Tondo in their homes. File photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

The residents of Aroma, and nearby settlement areas in Tondo, said they wouldn’t risk their lives if there was support from the government. Arlene recalled that they were told to wait for help from the mayor’s office, they were told that it was coming soon.

Hindi na namin alam ang gagawin namin at hindi namin alam kung kanino kami lalapit para makakuha ng tulong para mabigyan ang mga pamilya dito,” she said. (We don’t know what to do or who to turn to, to ask for help so we can get some support for our families here.)

They weren’t asking for much, Arlene said, but maybe a little bit more than the one-and-a-half kilo of rice they received last March 23 from their barangay.

Nangako silang hindi nila kami pababayaan ngayon na may pandemic,” she said. “Eh iyong pangako na iyon, hindi pa po natutupad.” (They promised that they would not neglect us in the face of the pandemic. But until now they still haven’t fulfilled that promise.) 

‘Hindi na namin alam kung saan pupunta’

The community near Navotas fish port prides itself with having residents who are quick to find ways to earn a living. Some are fisherfolk, some make fishnets, while others go to the market to sell goods. 

But the virus upended their lives. Even the Navotas shipyard workers, who earn a consistent P600-average daily wage, were left with nothing.

Everything was set for many of the shipyard workers before the lockdown. They were supposed to stay inside their workplace and continue working so there will be money for their families, even if it means not seeing them for weeks, even months, depending on how long the lockdown will last.

Local authorities, however, had other plans. They shut the operations in the shipyard, ended mass transportation, and placed checkpoints, in a bid to stop the spread of the virus. But it spelled doom for many residents.

Tinakot sila at sinabihan na huhulihin kung hindi sila uuwi,” Hannah, a local community leader, told Rappler. “Kaya wala silang choice, kaya wala na silang kinikita ngayon.” 

(They were threatened with arrest if they didn’t go home. So they had no choice but to follow, that’s why now they don’t have any income.)

Hannah said she is lucky to have a steady albeit small income for her 6 children. But she knew it would eventually run out, like the 5 kilos of rice and 16 canned goods she received from city hall – the only semblance of help from the government since the lockdown began.

Families, at least two in every row house, are left to find other means to survive in the absence of normalcy in the face of the outbreak. What used to be a decent wage turned to nothing. Two weeks into the lockdown, they are barely getting by.

Some now sell vegetables plucked from the rare vacant lots. There are mothers and daughters seeking jobs from their neighbors, such as doing laundry and other household chores. No errand is too small or too big, especially if it means earning money to put food on the table. 

Social media became the refuge for many, with residents trooping to Facebook to ask for help. Hannah recalled one of her neighbors asking for diapers or milk for her baby.

Halos lahat ng mga nandito sa amin, talagang walang-wala na at umaasa na lang kung anong ayuda ang maibibigay (Almost everyone here has nothing and depends on whatever help will be given),” she said. 

As if the fear of going hungry wasn’t enough, residents also live in constant worry that their everyday quest to find food will lead to their arrest. There were already reports of neighbors being picked up by police or barangay watchmen. Hannah said she once saw a child onboard a mobile patrol vehicle.

But they go on, crossing their fingers that local authorities will understand their plight. 

Ang lupit-lupit nila kasi gusto na nga nila kumita para sa pamilya, ganyan pa ang mangyayari,” Hannah lamented. “Hindi namin alam kung saan na dapat pumunta.” 

(They are so cruel, people want to earn for their families then this is what happens. We don’t know where to go to now.) 

IN THE OPEN. Displaced residents who call Maisan Street in Manila home continue with their lives despite the Luzon-wide lockdown. Photos by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

‘Hindi namin masisikmura na kami meron tapos sila ay wala’

The community in Caingin, Laguna is as tight as any family can be. This is now being tested in the face of the Luzon lockdown, which cut many of the residents’ main sources of income – fishing, construction, and mass transportation.

Jhelyn Encio’s family does whatever they can to help fill in the gap left by the lockdown. The family of 6 usually relied on earnings from the mother’s work as a househelp and the father’s income as a village watchman. 

They have received relief goods from the local government, but they worry these won’t last them two weeks. 

Hirap na hirap kami kasi wala naman trabaho na at umaasa na lang kami sa relief goods na bigay ng mayor,” Jhelyn said. “Pero ang tanong aabot pa ba iyon sa mga natitirang araw ng quarantine?

(We’re having a really hard time because there are no jobs so we rely only on relief goods given to us by the mayor. But the question is, are these enough for the remaining days of the quarantine?)

With inadequate assistance from the government, residents were left with no choice but to find the nearest and safest way for them to make money. For Jhelyn’s siblings, they resorted to what they knew best – fishing.

If they are lucky, a day out in the sea would lead to a catch of 5 kilos, which would be sold for a total of P150. Catching more than the usual means having fish for dinner. 

There were times when they decided not to sell their catch and just share with their neighbors, even if it meant loss of income. They were, after all, in the same dire situation because of the lockdown. 

Hindi namin masisikmura na kami meron tapos sila wala,” she told Rappler. “Magkakamag-anak kami dito kaya talagang tulungan na lang kami, kailangan magbigayan kasi kapag kami naman ang nawalan, sila ang tumutulong sa amin.” 

(We can’t bear it that they don’t have anything while we have something. We’re all a family here so we really have to help each other. Because if there comes a time when we have nothing, they will also help us.) 

Jhelyn believes the government is doing its best, even the President himself. Her father, already suffering from diabetes, is sacrificing a lot to be on the front lines as part of the barangay team, after all. 

Communities just have to find other means while they wait for government assistance, she said. 

Hindi naman puwede iaasa sa gobyerno ang kakainin kasi kung hihintayin mo iyon, mamatay ka talaga sa gutom (You really can’t rely and wait for the government to give you food, because if you’ll wait for that, you’ll really die of hunger),” Jhelyn said.

‘Wala talagang makain. Wala na talaga.’

RELIEF OPERATIONS. Payatas residents pack relief goods for their neighbors as the government fails to deliver on their promise of aid. Photo courtesy of Diding Libao

Diding Libao, 56, counts herself as one of the few lucky ones. She lives in Payatas, one of the poorest barangays in Quezon City, but she has been able to count on the help of the church.

Libao herself is a leader of their outreach team under the Ina ng Lupang Pangako parish, which counts Payatas as its congregation. 

They are 24 community leaders who handle 150 to 200 families each in distributing help from the church. Libao is the main leader of all of them.

According to her, as the lockdown continued, more and more people turned to them for help from the barangay – just two kilograms of rice and canned goods – lasted for a day only for many families. There was still no help from the national government.

During the first week of the lockdown, they counted around 500 families in total asking for help from their church. By the second week, they counted 1,716.

Wala talagang makain kahit sinasabi nila (ng gobyerno) na merong [nabibigay], wala na talaga. ‘Yung weekly nilang sahod, wala na po talaga,” said Libao in a phone interview with Rappler on March 30. (There really is nothing to eat, even if the government says they have given out food, there isn’t any anymore. Their weekly income is gone.)

Libao said most Payatas residents either work in junk shops or in garbage dumps. The rest are tricycle and jeepney drivers, construction workers, and vendors. All of them were banned from working, given the lockdown.

COMMUNITY HELP. Diding Libao and her fellow volunteers hand out relief packs to Payatas, Quezon City residents amid the coronavirus lockdown. Photo courtesy of Libao

Libao lives with 3 of her children. Her first is a nurse working in Mandaluyong City. Her second works for a business process outsourcing (BPO) company. Her last child works for a manpower agency. With two of her 3 children allowed to work, they have still been able to earn.

People would expect goods in the market to have slowly dwindled by now. But the opposite is true in Payatas.

Dahil walang pambili ang marami, ‘di nauubos. Wala masyadong bumibili. ‘Di tulad ng dati na pinuputakti (Because people don’t have money to buy, the goods don’t run out. There aren’t a lot of people buying anymore, unlike before when the goods were up for grabs),” Libao said.

As the lockdown continues, Libao said she is unsure whether they could continue to feed hundreds of families. She expects more would go hungry in the days to come.

Sana ang pangako na magbibigay sila, sana maparating nila nang mas maaga, mas maayos, nang ‘di sa ganon masyadong nakakaawa ang mga tao,” Libao said. (I hope their promise of giving help actually happens even earlier, and is more orderly, so that our people are not left miserable.) –


*Some interviewees requested the use only of their first names for protection.

TOP PHOTO: HUNGRY. Residents at a depressed area in Quezon City post a message asking for help from the government. Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.
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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.