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By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
With reports from Rein Tarinay
MANILA – One humid morning in March 2020, urban poor leader Mimi Doringo led a two-minute protest action outside their relocation tenement. She and her neighbors banged together empty cooking pots as they called for due social protection amid the start of what would turn out to be the world’s longest and strictest lockdown. After the short symbolic action, she rushed back to her family unit located at the tenement’s second floor, hoping to sip a cup of coffee that had been waiting for her. But she had just entered their home when village officials turned up at their door, looking for her.
“I was told that I was causing havoc in the community,” Doringo told Bulatlat.
Causing the slightest havoc can be deadly in the Philippines, with no less than President Rodrigo Duterte ordering the military, the police, and local government officials to “shoot them dead.” But for urban poor leaders, the threat was also directed against those whose efforts highlighted the ineptness in government leadership and policies in fighting the spread of the dreaded virus for the past year.
As of this writing, the Philippines has breached the two-million mark in the number of COVID-19 cases. The country recently recorded an all-time high of 22,000 new cases in a day, with no signs yet of slowing down as officials continue to veer away from increasing their testing and contact tracing capacities, hiring of more health workers, better rollout plans for the limited vaccines available, to name a few.
“Village officials were brandishing their arnis. Were they trying to intimidate me? They could never, not when I know that I am doing the right thing,” said Doringo, who refused to go with village officials.
But they returned with three more police officers, who accused her of breaking plates and glasses during the protest action. She and her colleagues never did, Doringo said.
Village officials then demanded to know why they did not buy and store food in anticipation of the lockdown. To which she replied: “How could people here afford that? The president promised financial assistance and we are looking forward to that.”
Doringo was eventually brought to the village government office, where their barangay captain asked for understanding over the squabble. Earlier that week, the urban poor leader wrote to the village office, asking how it plans to deal with the virus and if the local government will designate a dedicated health worker for their community.
These queries, however, were met with deafening silence.
Such inaction was also prevalent in many urban poor communities, with residents hanging on to President Duterte’s promise of financial assistance. Instead, they were confronted with confusing guidelines, very long queues, and too little assistance.
Women in urban poor communities are strongly in need of such assistance. A survey led by the United Nations Development Programme in the Philippines revealed that women were generally “worse off,” with 42 percent of them forced to stop work compared to 31 percent for males and 14 percent for LGBTQI+.
But just weeks after the incident involving Doringo, residents of urban poor community Sitio San Roque in Quezon City were arrested after they held a spontaneous protest. This community has been a pillar of urban poor activism in the Philippines, as residents continue to fight the impending demolition of their homes – pandemic or not.
Women community leaders here eventually initiated a community kitchen to provide warm meals to their hungry neighborhood. But on April 6, 2020, police officers arrived in Sitio San Roque to have placards calling for due government aid to be removed. Residents were told to stop their community kitchens.
On Labor Day last year, 10 relief workers were arrested while on their way to a feeding program in Marikina City. The charges were later dismissed for lack of probable cause and insufficient evidence.
Human rights groups said these attacks against the urban poor amid the pandemic revealed the absence of compassion under the Duterte administration.
A year on, community- and women-led efforts that responded to the Filipino poor’s needs continued to face harassment. Among the most recent and talked-about was the red-tagging of community pantries that sprouted in the country as a response to the growing hunger that many Filipino poor were subjected to.
“From the very start of this pandemic, the Duterte administration has turned to military action as if there is a martial law in place. It is not surprising that people will mobilize to call out the government’s attention to address their hunger,” said Gloria Arellano, chairperson of Kadamay.
This story was funded by the APWLD 2020 media fellowship programme on ‘Gendered Impact of COVID-19 on the Ground’