“They are making us miserable. We have been deprived of food and now we are the bad ones. We are not criminals, we just want to earn a living so that we could feed our families.”
By RITCHE T. SALGADO
MANILA — As the community quarantine in Metro Manila approached its eight day, informal workers are starting to raise alarm on the need to address their most basic need – food.
“Since the start of this quarantine we have been living on the little savings that we have,” said Jonel Diestro, 42 and a pedicab (bicycle cab) driver for two years. “We are not allowed to ply the streets, but we have to or our family would go hungry.”
Jonel has seven children. Before the lockdown, he shared that he was able to earn an average of P600 per day, enough to feed his family, send his children to school, and still be able to keep some as savings.
“But the little that I have set aside is all used up, how can I feed my family now?” he lamented.
Jonel is one of six pedicab drivers that San Isidro Labrador Parish in Bagong Silangan have decided to adopt for six days, providing food for their families in exchange for their cabs which will be kept in the church compound for six days.
“We have been providing food for our pedicab drivers in the barangay for the last three days when I witnessed an incident,” Fr. Gilbert Billena, O.Carm., parish priest of San Isidro Labrador Parish, said.
“A barangay volunteer was shouting at pedicab drivers who insisted on plying the streets. Then it hit me, we keep on insisting for our informal workers to stay indoors, but if they don’t work, they have nothing to eat. What can we do to encourage them to stay home without them having to go hungry during the period of the quarantine?” he asked.
Billena insisted that it is not enough for government to insist that people stay in their homes to prevent the spread of the corona virus, while not providing for their most basic need, especially food.
“It has been a week since the community quarantine took effect in Metro Manila, and six days since the enhanced community quarantine was declared throughout Luzon, but government still has not provided the food that it promised to provide to all those affected by the quarantine,” he said.
June Gelito, 40 and a pedicab driver for ten years, empathized for his fellow pedicab drivers who really had nothing to eat since the start of the quarantine.
“They are making us miserable. We have been deprived of food and now we are the bad ones,” said June. “We are not criminals, we just want to earn a living so that we could feed our families.”
Roberto Salvante, 49 and a pedicab driver for 22 years, shared the same sentiment. He said that since the start of the quarantine, life has been difficult. “Before, we could earn enough for our family but now, we are forced to hide from the barangay volunteers who go around threatening drivers who insist on plying the streets. I feel like a criminal. We are honest people,” he said.
Roberto is taking care of a son with mental disability, a 16-year old daughter, and the family of his 20-year old daughter whose husband lost his job because of the quarantine.
Jonel said that the drivers understand the need for the quarantine, and as much as they would like to cooperate with the government, they are forced to take their pedicabs out because they are not getting any of the support that the government promised at the start of the quarantine.
“That is why, since the church started giving out food, we have been looking out for it, although we also understand that not all of us will be given, but we are hopeful,” he said.
“We are not used to begging for food because we earn enough to provide for our family, but now we have no choice but to beg for food, which can be very degrading,” he added.
Aside from providing for the basic needs of the informal workers, Fr. Billena also raised his concern with regards to the spread of the virus.
“We do not actually know if the virus is already in our communities. Testing is only available for the rich and for those who are already about to die from the virus. What we need is mass testing that would help us assess the state of the spread of the virus in our communities,” he said.
Billena echoed the concern of the barangay officials of Bagong Silangan should an infected person be present in any of the many depressed communities in the barangay.
Bagong Silangan has around 35,000 families and majority are poor with no sustainable means of income like the pedicab drivers, street vendors, and scavengers.
“We do not want to spread panic, but we want the government to sincerely do their work and really start coming up with concrete solutions to the problem and not just announce empty promises on TV or on social media,” he said. “So far, since the start of the quarantine, the only solution that we are seeing is the increase in the number of police officers in the streets or of barangay peace workers, just to shout at people, telling them how undisciplined and uncooperative they are because they refuse to stay home, not even understanding that these people need to earn a living for them to be able to feed their family on a daily basis,” Billena said.
“Now, it is urgent that we do mass testing because we do not want this virus to spread. Putting the whole region on quarantine is not a good idea. It displaces many people, it removes the humanity of many people, It degrades people because it deprives them of a dignified way of supporting his or her family,” Billena said.
Billena is alarmed at the thought that some senior officials in government are even floating the idea of putting the country on a state of emergency that would give the president absolute power.
“This is absurd,” he said. “The police are expecting, even preparing for people to start looting or for criminality to increase, but they are not doing anything to address the reason for this, if ever it would happen. That is because people are becoming hungry and what father or mother could afford to see his or her children cry in hunger?”
“We should address the problem with COVID-19, we should fight this together, but in doing so, let us also be humane and remember our Christian duty of taking care and of loving our neighbor as Jesus loved us, with self-sacrifice,” he said.
Focus on the people
“Government officials or public servants, as they fancy themselves, should start to focus on the people and not just on ensuring that they are able to do what is told of them,” Billena said.
“It is not enough for them to do checkpoints everywhere and anywhere in the barangay, rather, they must first see to it that these people, especially those who are in the margins of our society, would not go hungry, would have a comfortable shelter that allows them to practice social distancing or proper sanitation, and other basic stuff,” he added.
San Isidro Labrador parish has started several initiatives to help address the basic needs of those in need in the community since the lockdown was announced on Friday, March 13. Aside from the cab-for-food exhange, the parish also introduced a “Hot Meals Drive-Thru” which is intended for pedicab drivers to drive-thru with their pedicabs in claiming their meal ration, which is also open for informal settlers; house-to-house food distribution in vulnerable communities like the village for persons-with-disabilities; a “Hugas Kamay” facility intended for workers to disinfect themselves before going to their homes after work; disinfection of houses in vulnerable communities; and others.
“We do not stop here because everyday we face different challenges from the government with their changing policies,” Billena said. “That is why we have to be creative if we really want to be able to reach out to those who are in dire need in our community.”