In this post I want to make some observations of what I see on the ground in the Philippines with respect to the last two years of covid depression. I return to Canada (accompanied by ‘Carmen Beauty’!) on March 23 and will see where things stand in Canada after a month away and in comparison with The Philippines, and report on this in my last post on this theme, March 30.
Covid pandemic protocols have been very hard on Filipinos. Life in the Philippines is hard enough; for a vast majority of the population they live a bare subsistence life, and much of this in the service industry (restaurants, manicurists, Jeepney drivers, and small business owners – very small), and much of that in their own micro-economies in the barangays, suburbs, villages, ghettos, and squatters’ quarters in ravines everywhere. With the shutdown of the economy in 2020 March, and the vital tourist sector, life in the Philippines became desperate. There was no safety net for the 80-90 million Filipinos who now had no income (for the remaining 20 million with wealth, government jobs, or overseas philanthropy things were easier). At first, the Philippines government tried to distribute basic foodstuffs to the most needy people in the barangays (neighbourhoods) (basic – a sac of rice (one kilo), two packs noodles, two cans sardines!). But who paid the rent, and the utility bills??? The barangay officers know everybody in the neighbourhood and decide who is needy and who is not. Because Carmen and her entire extended family received (and still do) a weekly allowance from Canada, and the Barangay Captain knew this, the Espino clan of Lapadario got no help from the government for the whole of the pandemic (while supplies lasted!). Even Carmen’s nominal government pension (500 PhP – for the year!) was cut because she had allowance from Canada. And there are many families in Philippines who rely on money coming from family members overseas – Overseas Filipino Workers and emigrants – and boyfriends!. (You may laugh but this is an entire industry in the Philippines with women of every demographic posting on dating sites and attracting the lovelorn from America and Europe. The lucky suitor not only gets the girl but the entire barangay.)
The discrimination in allocation of thin government support was understandable but caused a lot of resentment amongst the people. There is a long long history of corruption in Philippines, which President Duterte has worked hard to eliminate during his term, but the sarcastic joke in the Philippines was that The Malacanyang (Presidential Palace) would give 10 cans sardine, the vice-prescient would take two, the senator for the province would take two, the governor of the province would take two, the mayor would take one, the vice-mayor would take one, and two for the people! (Except most people got none.)
Despite all this, the people are strangely compliant; quiet resignation. Part of this is because Filipinos are very familiar and accepting with government machinery going into action whenever there is a calamity, and there are many calamities in the Philippines: Typhoons (and floods and landslides), earthquakes, volcanoes, and diseases. The authorities mobilize the state police and the army and set up roadblocks at a moment’s notice; they set curfews and these are enforced by the Barangay officers and local police. So when covid struck and the world shut down on March 16 2020, Duterte’s government, in concert with local Governors, shut down The Philippines too. Only pessimists thought the pandemic (and resulting restrictions) would last two years but they were right.
Many Canadians have complained that Canada has been too slow to relax the restrictions, often arguing they were ineffective anyway, but Canada was not alone. Duterte hung on to restricting travel and quarantines, and curfews for as long as possible, even though his country was crying, crying for food. And for good reason: many parts of the Philippines are densely populated, especially the vast metro area of Manila and the surrounding provinces such as Cavite; Cebu and Davao, similar; (rural areas were comparatively untouched by covid and had more economic freedom but this made little difference when the main engines of the economy were idle). Multi-generational families live together in small houses, with the result that children have been confined to their homes for two years and older people have not been allowed out of their barangays without permit. Vaccines have been slow in take-up – partly because, as a third world country, supply was limited (and Filipinos did not trust the Chinese vaccines!); Filipinos are generally nervous about vaccines (not so much for the medical questions, but because of the needles!). Generally speaking the strategy worked: the death rate in Philippines was not far different from that in Canada. But now that the fully vaxxed vaccination rate is ~57%, (another 20% waiting for second dose and ~10 % have their booster (count Carmen amongst them)) it was time to open the country up again, and welcome tourists and boyfriends. (Interesting to note, apparently many of these covid romances are now being stressed as the foreigners appear to be having cold feet in traveling to Philippines to claim their brides. Is this also the fate of all those covid puppies in Canada?)
When I arrived in Philippines March 4 (and survived the bureaucratic storm of documents – both print and electronic) and was driven to our modest resort hotel in Dasmariñas, I was struck by the heavy traffic and claustrophobic congestion, even though only 6 o’clock in the morning. It was just like the last time I was here, pre-pandemic, in 2020. But somehow different.
But the country is tired. You get the impression that there is not the same energy and good humour as before. While the service industry and small businesses are creeping back to some sort of vibrancy, there is no money in the economy, at least not yet. For example, in the middle of the first year of the pandemic in 2020, Carmen opened a little clothing store. Her daily sales were 1500 Pesos per day, more or less; her Christmas sales in 2020 were 10,000 to 15,000+ per day. People didn’t have jobs but they still wanted to buy presents – so they sold their gold. By the fall of 2021 Carmen’s sales were down to about 750PhP per day and her 2021 Christmas period was 10% of 2020. Now her daily sales are even lower, around 250/day, not even close to a living wage; and for which she keeps her store open 12 hours per day, every day. This is typical of many thousands of small businesses here: the pandemic may be ‘over’, but the economy, and society have a long way to go to recovery. You get the feeling of quiet resignation, the Filipino shrug, a patient attitude of isa isa, bit by bit. Carmen’s entrepreneurial son GR, has many ideas for his future, modest maybe by North American standards but full of optimism and energy nevertheless. One hopes there are many more like him in the Philippines to help drive the economy, rather than rely on big Korean companies for jobs.
Before covid, Filipinos went about their business in their customary way, relaxed ‘araw-araw’ (day-to-day) realism, not cautious pessimism. You often saw surgical masks in the streets and malls but they were worn by Chinese people. With covid, everyone wore masks, as required by the government, and people willingly followed that sensible advice, if only to show solidarity, and compliance. Now, masks are worn only in malls and restaurants, (and security guards never ask for vaccine documents – only take your temperature) and optional everywhere else. And the option most Filipinos adopt is to forswear the mask, even on crowded Jeepney buses. (Carmen is still somewhat fastidious about masks but not doctrine – she doesn’t want to jeopardize her chances of being able to get to Canada.) Qubo Qabana is a resort hotel with a large community pool, open cabins where entire families (or ‘the whole barangay’!) party and have their barbecue meals, and loud music blasted across the plaza. Last night the owner of the resort held a private party for family and friends just outside our balcony, for about 30 people. The music was loud in the afternoon, and charcoal smoke and cooking smells filled the air, kids were swimming, adults were drinking and talking; by 9:00 p.m., the music was low and and the conversation quiet. Not a mask was in sight all day.
The country’s attention is now shifting to a new political regime: Election Day country-wide is May 9 and virtually every elected office in the country is up for renewal. Posters now paper every fence and tree in the country. Generally, heads of government can only hold office for one six-year term, from the President on down – vice-president, governors, mayors. Incumbents cannot stand for re-election, though they may run for another office. Rodrigo Duterte’s term is done and I’m sure he is disappointed – the pandemic has largely sidetracked many of his plans for the country. Duterte was immensely popular for his strong-man leadership, but this has wained somewhat as the pandemic persisted; he can’t run again and he is getting up there in years. His daughter, Inday Sara, mayor of Davao (as was Rodrigo), a lawyer and much promise, is the heir apparent but too young to be assured of election. In a shrewd move she is running for Vice President on an ticket with Bongbong Marcos (yes, son of Ferdinand and Imelda). He’s the odds-on favourite to win but the V-P role is separately elected and there is no assurance Sara will win. The current Vice-President, Leni Roberto, a social activist and fierce rival of Duterte, has a chance; and you can’t count out Senator Manny Pacquiao! The people are hopeful that a new regime will get the country moving again, but recovery from Covid-19 depression is only a part of the huge systemic problems facing this country. And they simply cannot afford another mass shutdown.
Do they worry about pipelines and ‘greenhouse gases’? Indigenous Affairs? Government Overreach? No. They worry about China, the price of gasoline, their next meal; the next [inevitable] calamity.
Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Cavite, Philippines
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