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‘Balik Probinsiya’

Last Tuesday while waiting for the TV announcement on whether or not the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in different areas in the country would be lifted or eased, I watched someone from a government agency (I did not get his name) being interviewed about the “Balik Probinsiya” (back to the province) program to be undertaken after the enhanced/modified/general quarantine is over.

Of course, we have heard about it all before because it had all been done before (with little success), but before I go into that, let me say that the government guy made it sound so easy, and with all enthusiasm gave instructions on how to go to the website and apply online, etc. Then send!

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Arrrgh! I got so riled up because I had Metro Manila’s thousands of homeless in mind. How the heck would the homeless who live in pushcarts, who survive by scavenging at night, and who can only dream of going back to their home provinces, access the internet and go to the website by computer, laptop, tablet, or cell phone? Do they even know how? I thought, why don’t you first try getting your feet dirty to know the poorest beneficiaries of your program? After that, give the what, where, when, and how.

I am not talking here of stranded overseas Filipino workers pining for home — they’re experts in online transactions.

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So easy for you to say, I thought, so like those who kept issuing matapobre reminders that the “pasaway” poor should stay indoors during the ECQ period because they could be spreaders of the virus. How do you keep, say, 15 people of a poverty-stricken household within the confines of a six-square-meter hovel? I-try mo kaya. By the way, no local governments in depressed areas ever thought of giving the poor some organized, scheduled outdoor breaks. And so the poor find ways to escape confinement and get arrested for ECQ violation.

Just before the ECQ/lockdown, I spent some time at a day center for the homeless run by religious sisters. There, the so-called street or pushcart families would come regularly to bathe, rest, wash, cook, and watch TV. They leave at sundown. I took photos of them resting on mattresses covered with immaculate white sheets.

I interviewed several of them, able-bodied men and women, some of whom expressed the desire to leave the life of scavenging in the city, go back to the place where they were born, take with them their young offspring who have known only the streets since they came into this world. That is, even without knowing what awaits them there, for it had been decades since they left the difficult rural life for what they thought was the land of promise — Metro Manila.

During the ECQ, many street dwellers have found a haven in the comfortable confines of religious institutions, some even in resorts. Behold and remember that poor, homeless man, kneeling and weeping for joy. Where does he go after?

This Balik Probinsiya is not new. It dates back to the early 1950s during the time of President Ramon Magsaysay. We knew about it from our readings but I learned about it first-hand from Aling Josie Cabrera, what it was like, and how it failed.

I did a long feature story (“One Woman’s Search for the Land of Promise,” Sunday Inquirer Magazine) on Aling Josie, the firebrand urban poor leader from Tondo during the martial law years and after. This small woman was a big presence on stage, a bold advocate for the rights of the urban poor. Only when I interviewed her did I know where the fire in her belly was coming from.

She was among those who sailed for the Land of Promise that was Mindanao. It was paradise in the beginning (oh, how she waxed poetic about it) but not for long. To make a long story short, the young woman from Bicol who tried her luck in post-war Manila was lured to Mindanao, only

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to drag herself and her young family back to the Manila slums. (I based part of my short story “The Scent of Coconuts” on her experiences.)

The nuts and bolts of Balik Probinsiya deserve our scrutiny.

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TAGS: Balk Probinsya, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, decongesting Metro Manila, Human Face, Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
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