Dante, our plumber, and Dondon, our carpenter, who have been doing work for our household over the years, approached me separately last week, both on a desperate plea for help after weeks of idleness and absence of income due to the Luzon lockdown. They may not be the last to do so. I know there are great numbers of others like them now being pushed to the edge of desperation, for whom assistance from local governments on food and basic needs has been woefully inadequate, or even entirely absent. We’re already seeing on TV news of local rallies by hungry residents turning violent. It seems that the specter of social unrest is becoming more real with each passing day. There are those who believe that these could be staged or instigated by “fear-mongers” out to embarrass the government, or for whatever other ulterior motive. Others suspect it could be the work of government operatives out to set the stage for imposition of much-dreaded martial rule. In this age of alternative truths and fake news, and especially under current circumstances, suspicions and conspiracy theories run high, and for the ordinary citizen, it’s next to impossible to know what and who to believe anymore.
Still, the suffering of countless Filipinos under the COVID-19 crisis is very real, and cannot be denied or ignored. Sadly, those who stand to get hurt the most by the crisis, apart from those who have succumbed to the virus itself, are the poorest and the weakest among us—those who have been the most disadvantaged in society to begin with. These are the homeless or those who live in flimsy houses in congested and disease-prone areas, have little or no access to health care, and do not have the security of a regular job that would resume once the lockdown is lifted. Most obvious are the so-called “gig workers”—drivers, plumbers, painters, carpenters, manual laborers, farm workers, manicurists, and many more for whom no work means no pay—whose jobs have been taken away by the forced stoppage of most economic activity. And unless government and the better endowed among us move proactively, the heavy toll exacted on their lives could stretch well beyond the short term, and lead to long-term worsening of their already difficult existence, well after the crisis blows over.
How substantial are the numbers of these people, and how much assistance do they need? Marjorie Muyrong, a colleague in the Ateneo economics faculty, examined data in the quarterly Labor Force Survey and the triennial Family Income and Expenditure Survey of the Philippine Statistics Authority, to get a clearer idea. She estimates that around 4 million out of the 5 million employed persons in the National Capital Region must have been rendered idle by the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), which allows for a skeletal workforce in certain permitted operations. Another 10.9 million in the rest of Luzon are also barred from going to work. If ECQ were to be imposed nationwide, an additional 8.6 million would be displaced in the Visayas and Mindanao.
Based on average expenditures on food, she estimates P20 billion to be required to support food needs of families of displaced Metro Manila workers for a month, and another P47 billion for those in the rest of Luzon. With a nationwide ECQ, an additional P16.4 billion would be needed for Visayas and P17.6 billion for Mindanao, for a total of P101 billion nationwide per month. Not yet counted here are the more than 2 million unemployed, and whatever is needed to keep their families afloat. Republic Act No. 11469, or the urgently enacted Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, provides for P200 billion in emergency subsidies to an estimated 18 million low-income households that have lost their sources of income, for up to two months. This could amply cover for the needs of Luzon, but should ECQ be made nationwide, much more funding would be needed, including substantial help from the private sector.
But in the end, it’s not just the money, but how effectively the assistance is delivered to those in most need that will be the crucial test.
Most of us have our own Dantes and Dondons who need our help now. Now is the time to come to their rescue.
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