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COVID-19 versus hunger: The cruel choice

In 2020, the Philippine hunger rate took a sudden, very sad, U-turn.

After falling to only 8.8 percent of families in December 2019, its lowest proportion since 2004, it leaped to 16.7 percent last May, the second month of the pandemic-cum-lockdown, and then rose further to 20.9 percent by July.

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The new level is the highest since mid-2014 (SWS July 3-6, 2020 National Mobile Phone Survey-Report No. 5: “Hunger among families climbs to 20.9%,” www.sws.org.ph, 7/21/20).

Hungry families are in the millions. In December 2019, a benign time, about 2.1 million families experienced involuntary hunger. Of these, 1.8 million suffered moderately (hungry only once or else a few times, in the past three months) and 0.3 million suffered severely (often or else always, in that same period).

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By early July, the moderately hungry were already 3.9 million families, and the severely hungry reached 1.3 million. Thus, in the new survey, severe hunger is now one-third of total hunger, whereas last December it was only one-seventh.

From 2019 to 2020, the hunger rate rose all over the country. From last May to early July, it rose in the Visayas and also in the Balance of Luzon, was steady in Mindanao, and fell in Metro Manila. However, the composition of hunger turned more severe everywhere, including Mindanao and Metro Manila. Have the social amelioration funds run out?

To estimate the number of hungry individuals, multiply the number of hungry families by 6—not just 5, since poor/hungry families are above average in size. The 5 million hungry families, times 6, implies 30 million hungry Filipinos.

The number of individuals suffering specifically from hunger is what may be compared to the number of individuals afflicted with COVID-19. Other types of suffering caused by hunger, such as illnesses, deaths, and underdevelopment of the mental capacities of malnourished young children, would be additional.

Unlike in the past, the high hunger rate in 2020 is not due to a spike in food prices. Instead, it is due to the radical disruption in very many people’s livelihoods, and hence their general purchasing power, for food and other basic needs. This disruption was brought on by (a) the government-mandated closure of many workplaces, and (b) its shutdown of basic public transportation, preventing workers from going to the workplaces allowed to open. The prolonged grounding of jeepneys has obviously led to hunger among the families of the jeepney drivers.

On the other hand, COVID-19 victims are in the tens of thousands. There’s no getting away from COVID-19 statistics; they are updated daily by the government, and well publicized. The DOH PH COVID-19 Viber group has a national tally of 1,837 deaths, 23,281 recoveries, and 45,646 active cases, as of 7/23/20. The active cases are 8 percent asymptomatic, 91 percent mild, and 0.8 percent severe/critical. These add up to a national total of 70,764 cases, active and inactive.

For every COVID-19 victim, there are of course others that suffer, such as family members, relatives, and friends, who look after the victim, help with the medical care and other needs, and grieve together. They may be counted as well, but it will not make the number of COVID-19 sufferers reach even a million.

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Moral hazard in forming policies to cope with COVID-19. I can’t help but be conscious that the politicians and bureaucrats who control the lockdown rules are not the ones who will be too inconvenienced by them. Their posts and reward systems have been unaffected. They have private cars for their personal mobility, and they are “authorized to be outside residence.”

In short, these are people who are quite safe from hunger. Their real worry is that they and their friends and relatives might be infected by COVID-19. Their apparent priority is to prevent the spread of the infection, regardless of the cost to the general public in terms of hunger. Well, what if the membership of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases were expanded to include a fair number of jeepney drivers, factory workers, teachers, and stranded overseas workers?

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TAGS: COVID-19, health crisis, hungry families, lockdown, National Mobile Phone Survey, pandemic, survey, SWS
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