By MARK LAVARRO
STA. CRUZ, Laguna – Once a beneficiary of a community pantry, 67 year-old single parent Beth Concha is one of the volunteers of Flag Brigade PH, an initiative started by labor group Defend Jobs Philippines.
For Concha, the inept government COVID-19 response has brought so much difficulty to her family. Last year, when the country started implementing the lockdown, Concha lost her job in a catering service where she has been employed for the past six years. Because of the community pantries, Concha and her family were able to get through with their day to day needs, especially food. In order to survive, she would wake up early in the morning and line up with the different community pantries across Manila.
It was during these early morning runs to community pantries that she met Defend Jobs.
“I am used to this kind of work,” Concha told Bulatlat in a phone interview, referring to the service she does for Flag Brigade PH.
“I am not afraid because I know that I am not violating any law now that I want to help others,” she said, adding that her age did not deter her from volunteering.
Community pantries sprouted in many parts of the country this year, in an effort by private individuals and groups to provide food to hungry families, especially those who have been laid off from work. Among these is Flag Brigade PH, which has since transformed into a mobile pantry drawing inspiration from Malaysia’s White Flag movement.
Initiatives like this help ease the hunger of many of Manila’s poor as the Philippine capital reverts to a stricter lockdown with very little aid for affected families. For Flag Brigade PH, they provide food and other essentials to poor families and those most affected by the lockdown like Concha.
On its first day, despite threats from government officials limiting humanitarian aid, the group was able to provide food aid and other essentials to about 200 families from among Manila’s poor.
In order to address the growing incidence of hunger brought about by the pandemic, the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) said cash assistance will be distributed to at least 11 million residents of Metro Manila affected by the stricter lockdown. Households may receive a one-time cash aid of up to $80. This, however, has been criticized for hardly being enough to meet the needs of majority of the people affected by the lockdown.
“We were able to get by with my work before, even when I was only receiving P450 ($9) a day for the two days that I am able to work per week. I am thankful for Defend Jobs Philippines because they gave me hope; that our family can rise again,” Concha said.
In separate statements, Tulong Kabataan and Defend Jobs Philippines insists that the government should comprehensively focus on the people’s demand instead of disallowing humanitarian reliefs especifically in this time of a worsening pandemic and insufficient aid.
Independent think tank Ibon Foundation said the poorest 70 percent of families, which accounts to about 17 million, lost an average of P13,000 ($260) to P32,000 ($635) in income in the past 17 months.
The group also noted that the Philippines has the highest unemployment increase in the whole of Southeast Asia. This year alone, government data revealed that the country’s unemployment rate slightly increased in one month’s time from 3.73 million in May to 3.76 million in June.
“The lack of real fiscal stimulus is a major factor in the raging crisis of joblessness,” Ibon Foundation said.
Youth group volunteering too
Apart from Defend Jobs Philippines, youth activists have also launched a relief network that provides warm meals to Quezon City’s poor.
Abi Sillas, an 18-year-old volunteer of Tulong Kabataan, has been involved in the effort for more than a year. She said that their initiative made her realize that people, especially the youth, need to take action.
“We cannot remain victims of the systemic problems of our society. I realized that we have a role to play,” Sillas said.
Their efforts, however, have been maligned and the initiative red-tagged.
Early this year, Peace Philippines, a Facebook page claiming to be a youth-led organization, red-tagged Tulong Kabataan Network and their community pantry, claiming, with no basis, that it is a weapon of the communists to recruit members.
Four volunteers were also arrested last year. The city prosecutor released them together with 14 other residents for further investigation, citing insufficiency of evidence.
“We are challenging the government to give what the communities need. They should look into the roots of the problems and not treat COVID-19 as a security problem,” Hayme Alegre, head of Tulong Kabataan said in a Bulatlat interview.
He added that the government should instead fund efforts that can help defeat this pandemic, and not allocate public funds that contribute to red-tagging and terrorist-tagging of youth activists and relief workers.