Observation Post: The Social Divide in the Time of Co-vid 19

03.06.2020 - Metro Manila, Philippines - Karina Lagdameo-Santillan

This post is also available in: Italian

Observation Post: The Social Divide in the Time of Co-vid 19
Informal settlers living along a creek in Quiapo, in the heart of Manila. Author patrickroque01. Source Wikimedia Commons.

The haves and have-nots. The privileged and the poor.

Because of the pandemic, the gap is so much more evident, so in your face, here and in other parts of the world. The crisis forces you to look around, to see and make sense of what’s happening. You stay glued to the news on TV, radio or social media to get your bearings in this strange new situation that keeps you locked down, isolated and with some time to spare. So you can’t ignore it. It hits you little more, up close and personal. Judging from the posts in social media these past few months, I’m not the only one. Surely, seeing the social divide more clearly is one of the good things coming out of this crisis.

Here is a rundown (some highlights, not comprehensive), a glimpse of what it was like for the privileged and the poor during the past two and half months of lockdown, as seen from my observation post in Metro Manila.

Ensuring the Public’s Health and Medical Care Services. The lockdown came a good one and a half months after the Co-vid problem was officially announced the end of January and the first cases of Co-Vid 19 patients started to come in. Prior to that, travel was still open, with a good amount of Chinese tourists and OFWs, some from Wuhan no less, coming in. The first Co-Vid cases were Chinese tourists and travelers. The hospitals started to fill up but even private hospitals were not equipped with enough special facilities and supplies needed to treat and contain the spread of infection to other patients. The Department of Health scrambled to address the problem. Beef up the municipal hospitals, call for additional nurses and health workers. Later on, testing and more contact tracing and isolating the infected at the community level. Well, they did try but the problem was overwhelming and the whole health system was simply not prepared to deal with an unknown and highly infectious disease.

The reported cases of Co-vid 19 infection and deaths of locals were mostly from the upper class, people who had traveled abroad for work or pleasure, and then came those who got the disease from local to local transfer. Sadly, a fair amount were doctors and health frontliners. To date, more facilities for quarantining cases have been set up thanks to government and private sector partnerships. More supplies and testing kits are coming in. But mass testing to track and more effectively address the spread of the disease is still lacking.

Being able to pay surely helps if you get the virus but, rich or poor, a hospital is no place to be in times like these. The rich who get sick can go to the best private hospitals and use their connections to doctors as well as avail of home care services and online consultation. Or even charter a plane to avail of medical care abroad. One patient actually did this but the plane crashed, killing all aboard including a municipal health worker from my city. But for the poorest of the poor? Getting health care if stricken with the virus wasn’t much of a concern. Sadly, I’ve heard some say to this effect “Hindi ako tinatablan niyan. Mayaman lang ang namumublema niyan” (I don’t get hit by that. Only the rich worry about that). They worry more about what to put on the table.

Hoarding Tops the List. Shelves in supermarkets quickly emptied out with the proverbial toilet paper disappearing so fast, you wondered how much of it the rich used to flush the toilet. A post showing the wife of an uber-wealthy businessman from Davao (the President’s hometown) purportedly buying a million bucks worth of groceries in one blow was the talk and the ire of the town. Stocks and supplies , specially much-needed masks, disinfectants, vitamins, and protective gear much needed by health workers and frontliners, quickly ran out. At the bottom were the thousands of blue-collar workers, ambulant vendors, house-help, et al earning a minimum daily wage of around five hundred pesos (10 USD approx) who can only afford to buy the meal for the day.

Instant Mass Transit Lockdown with No Plan in Place. No problem if you’ve got a car and a live-in driver to boot. But what about the majority who rely on mass transit? Just like that, thousands of people, notably health workers and essential blue-collar workers, had to walk to work or find alternative ways to get to their workplaces.  At the start, the government relied on local government units (LGUs) or private companies to find ways of providing transportation for essential workers. Netizens were aghast, calling policymakers, clueless if not heartless.

Politicians and Privileged Few, first. Quarantine Rules also Don’t Apply. With testing kits and centers in short supply, news of politicians and their families getting the first crack at being tested for the virus drew much flak from the public. One politician was derided for accompanying his pregnant wife to the hospital and after being seen shopping in a high-end supermarket in violation of the rules. Calls for his resignation or arrest notwithstanding and even after the hospital published a denouncement statement, said politician is still at large, pending a so-called “investigation”. But, nothing beats this: A Police Chief Major General holds a birthday party with a grand buffet violating the ban on gatherings and social distancing rules. In spite of this, the President makes a statement that he still needs this General’s services and entreats the public to give him a break. In contrast, hundreds if not thousands residing in the poorer communities have been summarily arrested, fined, or made to do community service for being caught out on the streets.

Much Needed Relief and Financial Assistance. The lockdown dubbed ECU or Enhanced Community Quarantine, crash-landed in mid-March covering Luzon and Metro Manila. General guidelines and policies were handed from the national government or implementation in two days. This left the local government units scrambling to deal with how to effectively and efficiently implement the ECU. General confusion ensued all around. This meant that relief goods needed to be prepared for the thousands who lost their livelihoods Thankfully, the Filipino bayanihan (community solidarity) kicked in and the early days saw citizens volunteers, organized NGOs, and big businesses pitching in and lending a helping hand. Relief goods for the poor communities, masks and PPes for health workers, free transport services flowed out, at times ahead of government support. This received much praise all over. Except for a few cities that had more capable and organized units, most of the LGUs had to scramble to get relief goods into the poorer communities. Financial assistance kicks in much later, distributed in a disorganized, uneven way.

Stay at Home and Social Distancing. Not a real problem if you had a pretty adequate home with enough rooms, maybe a garden and better, in a safe secure gated community. Or if you had a nice view from your condo in a posh area that lets you go jogging and pet walking around the wide empty streets. Additional points if you had live-in help, with family and friends to keep you company. You can order delivery from your favorite restaurant if you miss eating out. Fresh fruits and veggies to keep you healthy? You can order that, too, delivered to your doorstep. The really rich can even fly out to their island getaway for the weekend.

For those living in cramped quarters with a whole family living in one communal space, the concept of social distancing does not compute. Staying at home in a hot, humid space can be a real problem. Call them “pasaway” (stubborn) for still going out to hang outside on the street or take a stroll to the nearby “talipapa” (mini wet market)to buy the essentials for the day’s meal. If you were in their shoes, can you blame them?

Work from Home. Pretty great! That is if you have an office job, a fast computer, good access to the internet. You get to spend more time with the family without wasting valuable time traveling back and forth in Manila’s congested streets. But what about the daily wage earners– construction workers, laborers, jeepney and tricycle drivers, ambulant vendors, blue-collar workers. In a day, thousands of people lost their source of income. (My house helper who comes once or twice to a week from a nearby city was one of them. Her husband, a construction worker, out of work too. It took days and days into the lockdown for relief goods–some rice, noodles, and canned good– to reach her community.)

For Entertainment. Binge on Netflix or Watch Youtube.  Surely a treat and another thing to be thankful for. Middle and upper-class folks had the time of day watching all the free streaming movies, plays, concerts, and being entertained by their favorite celebs singing from the comfort of their homes. Top of the list was binge-watching into the wee hours of the night on the latest Korean drama series on Netflix or Viu. (I must admit catching a bit of the Hallyu bug as well. If anything, it provided a welcome respite from the toxic 24-7 news on the Coronavirus crisis.) That is if you had Netflix and your internet didn’t bog down due to the high traffic on the bandwidth.

On the other side of the fence? Those who get by watching free TV. Sadly, the government shut down ABS-CBN, the largest free TV network whose franchise expired in May, leaving just one other network operational. Something the President said repeatedly said he would do and which Congress did, despite strong public opinion calling for extending the franchise.

To date, lockdown measures have been eased, allowing people more leeway to pick up the pieces and get back on track. But it will take a while for things to get back to a “new normal”. So much has happened and it has become more evident that the current system based on money, power and privilege has not been able to truly address problems such as social inequality.

For what it’s worth, the virus has paved the way for intense discussion and debate, for reflection and action, on the problems besetting modern-day life. There is greater empathy and support for the plight of the disadvantaged. There are more and more voices speaking out and clamoring for a system that prioritizes the health and well-being, for equal opportunities to live a decent, secure life, for all and not just for a few. For a system that places people’s real needs as the topmost priority. More calls,  for those in positions of power to truly address the pressing concerns of the new times. 

There is a re-imagining of what the “new normal” can and should be after the pandemic, for the “old normal” will no longer do.

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