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Editorial

Days of hunger

/ 05:30 AM August 09, 2020

Poverty and hunger are more likely to give Filipinos already distressed by COVID-19 additional suffering, as the Philippine economy has crash-landed into recession for the first time in 29 years. The GDP tumbled by 16.5 percent in the second quarter under the weight of the world’s longest coronavirus lockdown, which forced the suspension of business operations, left more than 7 million people unemployed, and now could push at least 1.5 million more into poverty.

However, the strict police-led lockdowns, now on the fifth month for many regions including Metro Manila, have not only failed to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases; for the country’s poor—many of them daily wage earners who don’t earn when they don’t work—the restrictions have also become a choice between risking coronavirus infection and facing hunger.

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Recall Josie Lopez, a community leader of Sitio San Roque in Quezon City, saying last April 1 as urban poor settlers desperately appealed for food and government “ayuda”: “Hindi nga po kami mamatay sa COVID-19, mamamatay naman po kami sa gutom…” The government has managed to provide emergency help to the most destitute, true—but that assistance has dried up now just as the worst effects of the economic recession are only about to sink in, and even as billions of pesos are said to be lost to corruption (P15 billion in the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. alone, per whistleblowers).

The hunger rate, according to a Social Weather Stations survey released last month, has deteriorated fast, with at least one out of every five Filipinos experiencing involuntary hunger from May to July. SWS said this was the highest hunger rate — 20.9 percent or 5.2 million Filipinos — since the 22-percent rate in September 2014. It was also the highest under President Duterte’s administration. Experts, however, warn that the reality on the ground may be even grimmer as the sampling frame could have been limited, since the SWS, due to the lockdowns, conducted the survey only through mobile phone interviews.

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The coming months are expected to be brutal for low-middle income countries (including the Philippines) which the United Nations World Food Programme said will bear the brunt of the pandemic’s impact and “could lead to a food security and nutrition crisis of historic proportions.” An additional 200 million people around the world are expected to lose access to basic food and nutrition in the months ahead, warned the UNWFP, on top of the more than 800 million people who were already food-insecure before COVID-19. That means about 1 billion of the world population facing hunger.

The country’s poor, according to a discussion paper by the state-run think tank Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), could swell by as many as 5.5 million under a scenario where incomes decline by 10 percent for everyone; or, with better management of emergency financial subsidies such as the social amelioration program and the small business wage subsidy, by at least 1.5 million. In 2018, there were already about 17.7 million poor Filipinos based on the Family Income and Expenditure Survey. Of these, 5.6 million were estimated to be in subsistence or extreme poverty, while around 830,000 Filipino households were considered extremely poor or whose per capita incomes were less than the subsistence threshold (P7,337 for basic food needs, or P10,481 for both food and non-food needs monthly for a family of five).

With the COVID-19-induced recession, it’s unlikely the government will be able to slash the poverty rate to its target of 11 percent by 2022 (it was 26.3 percent in 2015, the latest comparable full-year data from the government), much more realize its AmBisyon Natin 2040 vision, which aims to make the Philippines a “prosperous, predominantly middle-class society where no one is poor.” That vision entails tripling Filipinos’ per capita income to $11,000 in 20 years’ time by sustaining at least 6.5-percent annual GDP growth. Instead, for this year, the country’s economic managers expect the economy to shrink 5.5 percent, and the drop in incomes and expenditures of households and businesses, according to PIDS, portends greater poverty and, inevitably, hunger among the populace.

Hunger, as economist and former National Economic and Development Authority chief Cielito F. Habito wrote in his column in this paper last Aug. 4, has been a major problem for decades “long before COVID-19 came, yet has not caused nearly as much concern or gained as much attention.” As of Aug. 6, COVID-19 has claimed 2,150 lives in the country. On the other hand, according to Unicef, 95 Filipino children die every day from malnutrition. That’s about 34,675 children dying from poor nutrition and hunger every year before the pandemic. But with COVID-19 and a plummeting economy, the country must brace itself for another crisis — a humanitarian one: Even more harrowing days of hunger are ahead.

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