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Locking out the poor

/ 04:40 AM April 03, 2020

As government figures out what to do after April 12, I hope they give high priority to alleviating the terribly adverse economic and social impact of the wild variety of lockdowns being implemented.

I worry that these lockdowns have greatly reduced the ability of mass media to gather and report stories on what’s going on out there and that, in the end, government might begin believing its own press releases, which paint a gloomy medical picture in terms of infections but are still in denial when it comes to the socioeconomic impact of the lockdown on the poor and, increasingly, the middle classes.

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Let me share a story about a trip I made into one of the urban poor communities last Tuesday.

I will not name the community, since the residents are fearful of repercussions. I went in—and this is not being dramatic—to rescue someone who used to be my late mother’s “katiwala” (literally, a trusted person, referring to a caretaker). He needed money badly, but I couldn’t use Smart’s Padala remittance system because his phone was too simple. A Palawan Express remittance wasn’t possible either because that meant going out of the barangay.

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Here you can see the class divide: A wealthier barangay, town or city will implement a lockdown by strictly limiting the entry of nonresidents. In poor barangays, it is the residents who are being locked out of the world. In theory, each household can have one resident leaving to get groceries, but there are many situations where people do not get permits: transient boarders, for example, or, like him, a katiwala watching over the property of someone else.

So I finally figured I would have to go in person, knowing that even if I was not a resident, I would get through being in a car and explaining that my mother’s katiwala needed help.

No, I did not wear a hazmat suit, but I was conscious about all necessary precautions, including a mask (which now seems, finally, to be accepted as a protective measure).

I made my way through two cities and as I approached our destination, I felt that even if still in Metro Manila, I had been transported to some remote rural area, complete with rocky dirt roads. People sat by idle, looking anxious, suspicious, bored or combinations thereof. There were checkpoints everywhere, manned by barangay tanod.

At one point, a tricycle passed my car and my driver chuckled, “Bawal ’yan, ‘di ba (Aren’t they banned)?” But I knew from our UP security guards that such “underground” tricycle drivers were everywhere, plying the city’s inner streets. They still ran risks of fines, and even detention, if caught, but what choice did they have with families to feed?

The katiwala was agitated as he told his story. He pointed in one direction and said, almost resentfully, that someone “there” had been infected and so the entire barangay was now locked down.

I wrote about this potential problem the day we began the Luzon lockdown: The rules allow, and it seems now actually requires local government officials, down to barangay officials, to lock down their administrative area if there are two COVID-19 cases from separate households, which means that in a few weeks most of the country’s 44,000 or so barangays may very well each have their own checkpoints, communities locking out communities.

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The katiwala talked about how he had been playing hide and seek with the checkpoints, which seemed to be increasing in number. He said he only had one route left, describing a hole in a barbed wire fence, using the term “lusot,” to slip through, almost to escape.

He could buy food only in small amounts because he was alone (and, I imagine, having to get through barbed wire). I left groceries and money, but wondered how long it would be before he would run out of money and ways to slip through the checkpoints, shuddering at the thought of that he would go hungry when, less than a kilometer away, there was food.

On the way back home, I turned on the radio and heard news about the protest rally of urban poor residents in Quezon City, calling on government to release aid.

The disturbance happened in Barangay Bagong Pag-asa. New Hope.

When we got home, the driver gingerly asked me if he could get half of his 13th-month pay. His two “bayaw” (brother-in-law), both jeepney drivers, were running out of money.

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