Urban poor in Manila go hungry during lockdowns

The Philippines has one of the toughest lockdowns in the world and has left 5 million Filipinos in Manila hungry during this year's lockdowns. More than 10 million people have lost their jobs and lively hoods making survival their only priority in times that haven't been seen for decades.


Why did the pandemic hit the poorest of the poor so hard?


As the Philippine economy is crashing into the worst recession in decades, how can the countries' poor pull themselves out of the crushing poverty? Manila is the business hub of the Philippines but has become a region plagued with disparity with 35% of its population or 4 million that still reside in slums.


Men trying to support their families work as laborers and have a meager income of just five dollars a day. The urban poor do not enjoy the progress that the city projects itself to have. There is a huge divide between the poor and the working middle class which is getting wider.


Two poor people in Manila slum.

Manila slums coronavirus epicenters


Now Manila has become the new epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in South East Asia with slums considered as viral hotbeds for the transmission of the disease. But the countries urban poor are facing a fear far more frightening than the coronavirus, the fear of starvation.


Many people claim that they are not afraid of the coronavirus anymore and only afraid of starvation. As work incomes dry up starvation is forcing the urban poor to cope in unthinkable ways.


A daily struggle searching for food


At midnight in one of Manila's slums, Bernadette aged 60 together with her 16-year-old daughter Lea breach quarantine restrictions in search of food. Despite all the restrictions they’re venturing out at midnight during curfew hours and risk being caught, but they are too hungry to care for rules. They claim that they have never experienced hunger like this before and feel tired and wasted.


Hungry and desperate they make their way to Divisoria, Manila's largest public market to scavenge for any food that is lying on the ground or underneath stall tables. Sometimes generous market vendors give them leftover vegetables such as beans and corn. After 4 hours they have collected more than enough to tie them through the next few days and plan to give their extras around their neighborhood. Bernadette says that friends from around her village never used to ask for food but now beg her for food whenever she finds some.


Bernadette and friends sit under a tree.

Bernadette’s used to be an egg seller and earn 15 dollars a day but the lockdowns have restricted her from working and the ability to earn any income. Her friend Elena is in the same situation and used to work as a massage therapist and earn 30 dollars a day on good days. Elena even made enough money to put up a small store to help with the families' daily living expenses.

Everything just fell apart during the first week of the lockdown and Elena’s family was forced to consume every food stock they had in the small store which now lie empty.


Many Filipinos are experiencing hunger and find themselves in similar situations, and the Philippines' hunger incidence rate is at its highest in 6 years according to the “Social Weather station” a non-profit research institution. Their research poll revealed that 22.5% or 5.2 million Filipino families have experienced involuntary hunger at least once in the past 3 months during the quarantine period.


To complicate things further all diesel powered Jeepney motor vehicles are now being phased out and almost all owner drivers can't afford to buy new electric Jeepneys. The lockdowns have decimated Jeepney driver incomes and many owners now use their Jeepneys as housing.


Jeepney drivers protesting.

The Government's emergency aid


The Philippine government has promised aid and signed into law emergency cash subsidies for 18 million low-income families. Beneficiaries will receive between 100-165 hundred dollars each month. City governments and village leaders were given one month to distribute the aid which had to be swift to reach the most vulnerable of the population. But many like Elena didn’t receive their subsidy right away even after waiting for more than two months. Aid has not only been slow but the amount was also very little.


Elena received only 138 dollars on her first month of subsidy equivalent to just one week of her usual income. The emergency allowance is only about half of what a family of nine needs to get by based on current estimates by economists and urban advocates.


Jose Ramon Albert who is a senior research fellow at the Philippine institute for development studies said: “the subsidies were never meant to be a total solution because the government does not have infinite money”.


The government says it has no money left to provide further subsidies. But 3 months after the first promised subsidy some 5 million people said they had still not received anything. The cause of the delay was caused by several factors one of which involved an official ensuring aid was going to his relatives and friends first.


Since the start of the subsidies, the government has received more than two thousand complaints regarding the delay of aid. Currently, the prosecutor's office has charged 134 officials with various graft-related cases of which 50 were police officers who were subsequently suspended. But the crux of the matter is local governments are facing deep systemic problems. One of the problems with the delivery of aid was caused because the government relied on a census that was 5 years old to obtain resident addresses.


Now nearly 6 months after announcing provisions for emergency cash subsidies the government has finally given the second month's subsidy to almost 95% of beneficiaries.


Elena who has 9 children living under the same roof said she was forced to borrow money to be able to feed her family and had borrowed money just to purchase rice. Now she has no way of paying her utility bills and has borrowed more than 100 dollars which she has no way of paying back.


Regular COVID testing is carried out periodically in the slums by trained volunteers.


COVID testing in the slum by volunteers.

A girl being tested for COVID by a volunteer.

Philippines tough lockdowns


The Philippines is known to have one of the most restricted lockdowns in the world. A special travel pass is needed to leave home and buy essential goods, and those who violate the curfew or social distancing measures or fail to wear a mask can be fined or even imprisoned.


The biggest question now is, how much longer will the urban poor people of Manila be able to survive lockdowns and it seems nobody has the answer.



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