First of four parts
Large-scale economic and social disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, along with the Duterte government’s seemingly inadequate response, have upended the lives of countless Filipinos.
While many individuals and institutions stepped up to extend helping hands, the severity of the hit cannot be denied, particularly in terms of making a living.
For tricycle driver Bartolome Narciso Bernardo, whose line of work was not one of those provided a lockdown exemption, the pandemic has meant little to no income and hunger.
Forced off the road, the 68-year-old Bernardo had no choice but to go out on the streets to beg. He claimed to have not picked up a passenger in more than a year after the government – seeking to avoid the use of the word “lockdown” – first put Metro Manila under an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).
While alternative work arrangements allowed many in the metropolis to keep earning paychecks as public transport was halted and all but essential businesses shuttered, Bernardo and uncounted others working informal and part-time jobs were left adrift.
“Hirap na hirap kami nuong pinagbawal ang pagbiyahe nung March last year. Wala kaming kita. Ginawa namin nakikilimos kami sa mga pasahero namin dati at sa mga dumadaan (It was very difficult for us when public transport was halted in March last year because we had no income. What we did was to beg for money from regular passengers and passersby),” Bernardo told The Manila Times.
At 68, Bernardo – who started working as a driver when he was 30 years old – has few chances of finding another job. As a senior citizen, Bernardo is also more vulnerable to Covid-19 but he said the need to eat had overridden his fear of the virus.
Another worry is that of being arrested for breaching quarantine protocols in the everyday quest to find food. But Bernardo said he and his fellow drivers would go on, crossing their fingers that local authorities would understand their plight.
“Minsan nakakuha ng pang-noodles at itlog. Yan ang ginagawa ko. Sa gabi, magnu-noodles ako at lalagyan ko ng nilagang itlog. Tapos sa araw, kape at Skyflakes. Ganun lang (Sometimes I get enough to buy a pack of noodles and an egg. That’s what I do. Noodles and boiled egg at night and in the day, coffee and a pack of Skyflakes [crackers]),” Bernardo recalled.
“Hindi ko nararamdaman na wala na akong gana kumain. Siguro mga isa o dalawang linggo hindi na ako kumakain. Bumagsak ang katawan ko. Inabot ako ng kadami-daming aksidente dahil akala ko matino pa ang isip ko pero lasing na pala ako sa gutom (I never felt the loss of appetite. I didn’t eat for a week or two so my body became weak. I got into minor accidents – I thought my mind was fine but I was already drunk on hunger),” he added.
Bernardo, who is separated from his family, claimed faith was playing a large part in helping him keep going.
“Makiusap ka lang sa Diyos na bigyan ka ng lakas ng katawan, bigyan ka ng pagkain sa araw-araw. Yun na lang ang gabay ko, ang Panginoon. Pag gising mo sa umaga, pasalamat ka sa Diyos, binigyan ka ng bagong umaga kahit ganito. Ganun lang ang buhay ko. Wala naman nag-iintindi sa akin (Just continue to ask God to give you strength and food for every day. He is my remaining guide. When you wake up, thank Him for having given you a new morning despite the circumstances. That is my life. I don’t have anyone to mind me),” he said in near tears, adding that others in a similar situation should not forget to pray.
The government, meanwhile, should find ways to help the elderly – particularly those still working – like him.
“Sana makagawa sila ng paraan para makatulong sila sa mga mahihina na (I hope they find ways to help the weak),” he added.
Rhay Niel Tacud and his family, meanwhile, coped by cutting back on food and even going into debt. Drastic lifestyle changes were necessary as no savings meant they were unprepared for the lockdowns.
“Before this pandemic hit us, my life was different,” Tacud said, noting he could “dine in my favorite restaurants and have a good coffee during my leisure time.” As family responsibilities mounted during the health crisis, salary delays then prompted him to quit his job as a college instructor.
“Our simple business was greatly affected by this pandemic; even the work of my brother, sister and other relatives were also affected. As I am the one in the family who is not married yet, I chose to help my siblings and other relatives even though my salary is not enough because of the late paycheck,” he added.
With no income, Tacud resorted to borrowing money repeatedly, placing him deep in debt.
“We experienced sometimes na walang maulam (having no viand to eat) because we don’t have enough money to buy some fish or meat and my delayed salary is also not enough to pay our bills and to finance my medical maintenance,” he added.
Situations like Bernardo’s and Tacud’s are playing out not just in the Philippines but also across the globe, with Covid-19 restrictions costing hundreds of millions of jobs worldwide and plunging untold numbers of people into financial free-fall.
Last December, the Social Weather Station (SWS) reported that the lives of 62 percent of Filipinos had worsened over the past 12 months. The pollster’s survey, conducted in September, also found 30.7 percent of the respondents – equivalent to 7.6 million Filipino families – claiming to have experienced hunger. This was up from 20.9 percent in July and 23.8 percent in March.
An earlier survey by the Department of Science and Technology’s Food and Nutrition Research Institute, meanwhile, supported the SWS findings in declaring hunger had been experienced by over 50 percent of Filipinos.
The survey results were “not surprising,” Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr. responded, adding “2020 has been a challenging year for the Philippines with lockdowns adversely affecting the socio-economic condition of our people.”
“However, things are looking up. The economy has reopened, which means more livelihood opportunities have become available,” Roque claimed.
Poverty – at 16.6 percent in 2018 – could worsen to just below 17.5 percent this year, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua said September last year. At best, it could ease to just above 15.5 percent. Before the pandemic, the government’s economic team aimed to reduce poverty to 14 percent by 2022.
The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Chua heads has also said joblessness – at 8.7 percent in April 2021 from 7.1 percent three months earlier – will likely remain elevated at around 7.0-9.0 percent by 2022, roughly the same as the 8.7 percent posted in October 2020. Unemployment hit a record 10.3 percent last year, much higher than the pre-pandemic target of 3.8-5.3 percent.
The Duterte government’s Covid-19 response included cash and other forms of aid to severely affected sectors, an initiative that popularized the word “ayuda” – Spanish for “help” and part of the Filipino language. The effort has been widely criticized as not enough and concerns have been raised that, with the pandemic far from over, the official response remains lacking.