Looking Out for Your Own in the Philippines

Because often there’s nobody else to look out for you

By: Criselda Yabes

The Philippines’ iconic symbol of nation-building stems from the graphic caricature of townsfolk carrying a family’s hut on bamboo poles to a new location, symbolizing more than anything the virtue of helping each other in times of need. The term for this is the ‘Bayanihan,’ a spirit of unity in a country divided by archipelagic islands, family clans, ethnic tribes.

Year in and year out, a country beset by a string of natural disasters – typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions including one that occurred at the start of the year – has learned by rote how to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. Usually in the aftermath. One would think that disaster management should be in the genes, and that as the Covid-19 pandemic struck, it should have had a semblance of finding the ropes to deal with a crisis.

On March 16, the government imposed an “enhanced quarantine” on the main island of Luzon, of which the capital Manila is at the epicenter. With sea and land borders closed, public transportation shut, all businesses locked down save for food stores and pharmacies, there was the onset of panic and mayhem. To the lowliest of communities and the poorest in the slums, they had very little idea of what the coronavirus was about.

Now on its fifth week – the lockdown was extended until the end of April – there is as yet no mass testing or even cluster testing. None of that. Officials say testing will begin on April 14, but due to limited kits for a population of about 12 million in the metropolis alone, they are likely to start with patients that are either “under investigation” with symptoms or “under monitoring,” those who are potential carriers who have had contact with confirmed patients.

In the neighborhood where I live in Quezon City, one of the satellites in the massive web of metropolitan Manila, our village captain was at the megaphone at every hour during the first week, imploring the populace to stay indoors on the orders of President Rodrigo Duterte, who would appear on television at his nocturnal hour as his usual rambling, incoherent self, as though his brand of political amusement remained the staple of the masses.  

By the second week, there was a village announcement for a quarantine pass and a liquor ban. The pass was to be given only to one individual per household and the ban on alcohol really had nothing to do with containing the spread of the virus but was to prevent the drinking sprees that go with karaoke singing, the source of entertainment in non-gated areas.

By the third week, there was largely silence other than the announcement one morning of the grim news that our community had more than 20 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, from zero at the start of the quarantine. As it was near Easter, they quoted a verse from the Bible about staying indoors, taken out of context but the messaging had to be made simple for mostly Catholic citizens. Meanwhile, people were out of jobs, running out of food and money.

In declaring a state of emergency encompassing the entire country, Congress enacted a bill called (guess what?) the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” – which among other things was to give cash subsidies of PHP5,000 to PHP8,000 (US$100-160) to the estimated 18 million poor families across the country. This triggered a shocking polemic from a section of the so-called middle class that said the poor who didn’t pay taxes and didn’t work as hard as they should and couldn’t even follow rules didn’t deserve such help. And, of course, there is always the problem of how many hands touch the money, as the cartoon (below) shows.

That punctured the myth of the Bayanihan. The tradition we held that came close to having a sense of nationhood has, in this time of the coronavirus, raised questions our motives for a common good. Has it always been there or we were just fooling ourselves?

If we were so quick to respond at the onset of a disaster, mustering donations, coming to the rescue, bringing tons of food and evacuation materials, why couldn’t we be as equally fastidious when it comes to advanced preparations and holding elected officials accountable for the safety of the people? Where did the true spirit of Bayanihan go? We carried on our shoulders the symbolic thatched house held by bamboo poles, driven by compassion or fraternity. Was there something else that we didn’t know?

The late Gelia Castillo was a prominent rural sociologist, a social scientist who was a pioneer in the concept of participatory development whom I had interviewed in the mid-1990s. She had grown up poor and lived precisely in that kind of a hut that was destroyed in a typhoon, her family among hundreds that were displaced – a story that has happened to Filipino families until today. I was taken aback when she said, “perhaps it is time we peeled off this romantic image to find out why the house has to be moved to another place.”

That answer came now in this pandemic, when a friend who is at the front line described the situation on the ground, which he has seen in his civic action group’s outreach programs both in times of peace and crisis. He has come to the conclusion that the people lifting that symbolic house have a “shared agenda:” that they are doing this because they each know that when it’s their turn to move house, so to speak, the others will do the same. It is not entirely a selfless deed for the common good.

But this health crisis has put us in a survival mode not felt perhaps since World War II: we might try to carry the house now, but we don’t know what might happen, if help will come, if there will be help the next time around. And with this, Filipinos generally fall to a default mode, in the absence of clear planning from the government, with lack of transparency and immediate action, of protecting their own families, their smallest circle of friends. In short, they are on their own. Bayanihan works only in small pockets, in villages, towns or even cities where officials have earned the people’s trust.

When the government ordered that donations, private or otherwise, should be singularly coursed to the Office of Civil Defense, there was hardly any queue among donors who have seen the paralysis caused by red tape and the politics of bureaucracy at this stage of the fight against an unseen enemy. Government doesn’t get that.

It tried to question, for example, Vice President Leni Robredo’s quick action in raising millions to produce protective gear for the health workers, deploy shuttles for the front liners, find dormitories for hospital staff, cater meals for poor communities. Her moves, without fanfare, appear to have threatened the government or amplified what was missing on a national scale. Ironically, the anti-corruption commission said she was “competing” with others. President Duterte, who has been unkind to her in the past, later acknowledged that she was doing the right thing.

So it went that people carried out their work in a decentralized manner, from credible offices to proactive mayors to village captains and to our own circle of family and friends. That, in essence, has become the core of Bayanihan; it’s not an entire nation (the root word Bayan) joining hands for the country’s survival. It has broken down into different helping hands.  

I was envious when the new young mayor of neighboring Pasig City did not waste time in isolating the sick, disinfecting the streets, giving aid to the displaced, employing every creative way possible to keep the virus away. Yet the government tried to sanction him for allowing tricycle cabs to ply routes for those with no private vehicles who needed to go to the hospitals.

In Quezon City, our mayor’s initial foray was to donate some vitamins and alcohol in a bag plastered with her name, the way it’s done during an election campaign.

The pushback on social media against politicians without propriety became so intense, the hashtag #OustDuterteNow trended at one point, to which a pro-Duterte troll farm reacted with a vengeance only to have their manufactured accounts deleted by Twitter. There was in the early days of the lockdown anger towards senators, one of whom breached quarantine protocols and another who bragged about getting tested negative when those who needed the limited testing kits had no access to it.

On the eve of Easter, the president and his cabinet secretaries put on a midnight television show of patting each other’s back. The health secretary Francisco Duque III congratulated himself on the success of the lockdown, although he was the first to caution against it in early February for fear of offending China. He offered no clear plan on the flattening the curve or how metrics can be evaluated. To date, there have been about 220 deaths and about 4,200 cases. There have also been reports of deaths outside of the capital with coronavirus-like symptoms that weren’t tested. This brings into question the figures officially presented by the health department.

The president himself lied to the public when he said he had warned of the pandemic early on; actually he had downplayed it, mocking that people were hysterical over it.

In light of the current situation, a gradual, sequenced lifting of the quarantine would be the most prudent course of action, according to a paper by the University of the Philippines’ School of Economics. “There is too much that is not understood about how and why the virus is behaving as it is locally.” A gradual lifting would buy more time for the health system “to prepare and brace itself for the flow of cases that is bound to come for some time.” Funds from national government must flow immediately to the public and private health providers.

“To this end,” it said, “there must be a shift away from pre-pandemic bureaucratic procurement regulations to allow for exigencies as needed under emergencies of this magnitude.” It used to be that a position paper from the School of Economics gave politicians a pause for re-calibrating national policies. It’s unlikely that it would happen now.  When this is all over, the imperative for Bayanihan must be one that would hold leaders to account for what has been wrought.

Criselda Yabes is a prize-winning reporter and author and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel