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Forgotten: Muslims and other minorities

To say that the COVID-19 pandemic affects everyone in the country regardless of social standing is not false, but it does not entirely capture the whole picture, either. Yes, nationwide quarantines are backed by scientific evidence as helpful in flattening the curve of the pandemic. But these rules favor people with stable incomes and those living in economic centers—more so if they have strong political ties. The poor and marginalized are only further disenfranchised, especially when they are part of a religious minority.

Muslims in Metro Manila who perished from the coronavirus were stigmatized and refused burial even in Muslim cemeteries. Given these reports, our organization International Alert Philippines lobbied the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, and Muslim representatives in Congress. New guidelines and protocols for the interment of Muslims were immediately imposed by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, including instructions to stop the practice of cremation, which is disallowed in Islam. However, we still continue to receive reports of deceased Muslims being buried two to three days after death. The DILG directive to mayors to facilitate Muslim burials within 12 hours remains poorly enforced.

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Some communities to this day still have not received relief goods. For others, it is unclear whether these were one-off, or another round of distribution would be underway. Relief goods only last three days for a family of five. This becomes more problematic in Muslim communities like Culiat, where local officials provided no alternative to canned pork. These items were merely removed from the pack in an effort to be culturally sensitive. In effect, residents received fewer goods than their non-Muslim neighbors and their counterparts in other barangays.

Some local officials left the distribution of relief goods to tribal leaders in the community. Unsurprisingly, only those who have strong ties with tribal leaders received their share of goods, heightening identity conflict that involves clan ties and ethnic affiliation.

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Most household heads in poor communities like Baseco, Maharlika, and Culiat in Metro Manila and Parang in Maguindanao are tricycle drivers. As the guidelines got stricter and curfews were imposed, tricycle drivers continued their services and risked getting caught and fined just so they could feed their families. This predicament rings true for others who rely solely on daily wages like vendors and fisherfolk.

The situation of the informal sector is probably the most combustible, as most are dependent on daily incomes and wages, very little food is held in storage, and their families live in cramped spaces where the threat of contagion exists. Without immediate relief, people in the informal sector may be tempted to shift away from their involvement in coping economies toward engagement in the more deadly shadow economies of illegal drugs, illegal guns, kidnap-for-ransom, or guns for hire.

Political tensions add to the growing problem of COVID-19 measures in Mindanao. For instance, the local government of Cotabato City does not allow entry of relief goods from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) due to the unresolved contest in political jurisdiction following the inclusion of the city in the new Bangsamoro government in 2019. Likewise, the lockdown in Cotabato City, the economic center of Maguindanao, which at first prohibited the entry of residents from other towns, reportedly almost caused the Municipality of Sultan Kudarat to close the Rebuken water pumping station and cut off half of the city’s water supply. Cotabato City later eased border control to allow non-Cotabato residents to purchase goods and carry out essential activities in the city.

All these tell us that government response to this pandemic should ensure sensitivity to culture, conflict, and context. This can be done through consultations and engagements, especially with people who are most vulnerable to the implications of the crisis, quarantines notwithstanding. Dialogue, diplomacy, and mediation can produce more pragmatic solutions. It is through quick, inclusive, and targeted approaches that we can overcome and not worsen this crisis.

Nina Rayana Bahjin-Imlan is senior project officer for youth and women of International Alert Philippines, a peace-building organization that brings people across divides to solve the root causes of conflict and build lasting peace.

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TAGS: coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, DILG, Muslim
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