The Philippines have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis. Millions have lost their jobs while thousands are struggling to feed themselves. The government has failed.
By Carsten Stormer in Manila
For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The day Jebrix Labitoria decided he no longer wanted to live began badly and didn’t get any better. His stepfather had died, and his mother was demanding money from Labitoria to pay for the funeral. The sister who took care of Labitoria’s two-year-old son suddenly wanted to be paid for her services as well. And his son was hungry, and Labitoria couldn’t afford to buy him milk.
No money, no work, no food – Jebrix Labitoria was ashamed. He then got into a fight with his 20-year-old partner, Maridel Labausa – about the future, about responsibility and about the virus. It was about all that was facing them, and what to do about it. Maridel stormed out the house in anger and Jebrix Labitoria was left all alone with his problems, his concerns, his frustrations – all of which had been building up over the past several weeks. Ever since his life had gone off the rails because of the virus.
Jebrix Labitoria is a slender man who looks even younger than his 25 years. Before the coronavirus pandemic, he worked as a tailor, and his partner worked in a shopping mall in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. When the lockdown was suddenly imposed in mid-March, stores, shopping centers and restaurants all closed down and public life came to a standstill. The two young parents lost their jobs, leaving them with no income at all.
“Sometimes we ate once a day, but there were also times when we only had instant coffee to drink,” says Labitoria. On one occasion, they received an aid package from the government: a bit of rice, sardines, canned goods. But it was quickly used up.
“I had nobody I could ask for help,” Labitoria says, recalling that he drank a cup of coffee and then tried to commit suicide. It was April 22, Maridel’s birthday. She found him in time, unconscious, his face already turning purple. A neighbor helped her bring him to the hospital.
Labitoria has no memory of what happened. “When I woke up, I was in the hospital,” he says, and Maridel was at his side. In the hospital bad, she made him promise: “Never try that again. You have a child who needs you.”
Desperation of the kind felt by Jebrix Labitoria is in no short supply in the Philippines these days. In the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, a second catastrophe has been brewing for months, and it has begun swallowing up people like Labitoria. The economy has collapsed, and the country has dipped into recession for the first time in decades.
In August, the government announced new numbers: Adult joblessness has hit a record 45.5 percent, with fully 27.3 million people facing the abyss: No work, no income and no social safety net.
The government of President Rodrigo Duterte ignored the virus for far too long, with borders and airports remaining open even as the virus spread, and testing beginning too late. It wasn’t until March 16 that he finally decided to shut down the country, imposing strict hygiene and quarantine measures. He closed the borders, established a mask mandate, introduced a strict curfew, closed down streets, mandated social distancing and banned alcohol.
For months, the capital of Manila was essentially cut off from the rest of the country, with flights cancelled and mass transit shut down. Shops, restaurants, bars, cinemas and sporting facilities all had to close their doors, while people were required to stay at home. The military even set up roadblocks, while in the worst-affected neighborhoods, police dressed in camouflage and armed with machine guns patrolled the narrow alleys.
Thousands of people searching for work or food were arrested because they had violated the new rules and two people were shot dead by security forces. It was likely the longest and strictest shutdown in the world.
Still, the results of the lockdown left a lot to be desired. The distancing rules could not be maintained in most areas, with too many people living in tight quarters.
And now that more tests are being carried out, the full extent of the pandemic is becoming clear. Despite the lockdown, the numbers were continuing to climb until very recently. In mid-June, according to official figures, 27,000 people were infected. Now it is over 170,000. The Department of Health was announcing new record figures, with up to 7,000 new cases every day in early August, though the growth rate now appears to be slowing.
Still, the clinics in the capital are overwhelmed. There is not enough staff, and nurses are no longer allowed to leave the country. Two state hospitals in Manila had to temporarily close because too many employees were infected, and even several private hospitals were turning away patients due to a lack of beds.
Furthermore, many residents can’t afford comprehensive health insurance or medical treatment anyway. Endless lines are forming in front of the few public coronavirus test centers and tent stations.
Earlier this summer, the government was trying to control the chaos without placing further strain on the economy. Several quarantine measures were loosened, and stores, offices, and restaurants were allowed to reopen, though the rules for their operation remained strict.
Still, people were forced to camp out in the arrival halls of airports, in sports stadiums, in gyms and on basketball courts with their possessions – including stranded migrant workers who had lost their jobs and returnees from other countries who were unable to get home because flights, buses and ferries had stopped running. Men, women, children, the elderly: all were waiting for someone to tell them what will happen next.
A new term was coined for these people amid the crisis: LSIs – Locally Stranded Individuals. Free transport programs were set up by the government to bring thousands of these stranded people back to their home provinces from Manila with buses and ferries – the hope being that the suffering at home would be more bearable there than in the metropolis with its millions of inhabitants. Then as now, President Duterte announces the new measures in a televised speech every two weeks, setting the rhythm for the country’s step to step movement.
But on August 3, the government faced up to the rising numbers and again imposed a lockdown on Manila and four neighboring provinces, affecting over 27 million people. Local authorities threatened to shoot people who violated the quarantine, which was imposed in part because 80 doctors’ associations had warned that the health system was facing collapse. Even if the renewed lockdown was loosened slightly this week, the Philippines seems to be losing the fight against the virus.
“The worst is still to come. More and more people are losing their jobs and have nothing to eat. There will be many people who will experience hunger. I am very alarmed by this situation,” says Eduardo Vasquez, a priest in the Catholic church in the diocese of Caloocan, one of the worst-hit districts of Manila.
We were able to accompany Vasquez in the days before the second lockdown was imposed. On his daily visits to the slums – to the down-and-out and to those who ended up there out of bad luck. To people whose lives have very little left to hold on to. To people who can’t even afford a mobile phone and who had little before the pandemic and who now have nothing. Except their faith.
But praying alone is insufficient in this devoutly Catholic country, which is why Vasquez has forsaken his robes for the uniform of this pandemic: Facemask and protective glasses behind a plastic visor, along with disposable gloves, a protective suit and rubber boots. The priest also wears a straw hat to protect himself from the searing heat. “This is a war. A huge battle. And I have to use my faith to be able to serve the poor. Because the people are starving.”
Caloocan is one of the most densely populated areas of Manila, with around 1.5 million people living in a maze of shacks, stores and markets. It’s early afternoon, but the thermometer has already risen to 33 degrees Celsius (91.5 degrees Fahrenheit). “It is important that the people don’t feel abandoned by the church in these times,” says Vasquez, while disinfecting his hands with alcohol.
The priest parks his car next to a gas station. Six church members jump out of the tailgate, all wearing blue shirts, masks and visors. They are carrying Styrofoam boxes full of rice, vegetables and a couple pieces of chicken.
On the other side of the street, two Jeepneys are parked, those colorful, Filipino buses that ply the country’s roads. Three men are standing in front of them, with cardboard signs hanging from their necks asking for help: a few pesos or something to eat. In their outstretched arms, they are holding plastic bottles cut in half, with a couple of coins rattling around inside.
One of the beggars on the side of the road is Diosdado Padilla, a scrawny 56-year-old. Before the pandemic arrived, he was the proud owner and driver of a Jeepney, but now he is jobless and homeless. “Our situation at the moment is extremely difficult. We are not allowed to drive Jeepneys, so we have to beg, sometimes here on the street, sometimes in front of city hall,” he mumbles from behind his mask. In all the months of the pandemic, he adds, he hasn’t received any government assistance at all. No care package with food and no financial support. Nothing.
“We aren’t asking for much. We just want to be allowed to work again. We want to work, not beg,” says Padilla. Because he had no income, he lost his apartment, he says. Now, he is living in his Jeepney, and he is allowed to use the gas station restroom to wash himself. Sometimes, he says, he is forced to go days without eating. “We have been living in our vehicles for almost five months.”
Father Vasquez is often the only hope for people like Diosdado Padilla. Since March, the 47-year-old priest has been fighting on the frontlines against the effects of the virus, a wooden crucifix dangling from his neck. “My mission as a priest is to gather up the people who are seen as garbage by society,” Vasquez says as his visor fogs up. That, in fact, is how he earned his nickname: Father Ponpon. In the dialect of his home province of Bicol, “ponpon” means to collect something. Vasquez collects people.
But how can you collect people when you and they are trapped between fear and a strict curfew? Vasquez began by holding online church services when the places of worship were forced to close. But that wasn’t enough. So he asked the bishop to supply him and his helpers with protective clothing.
Since then, he has once again been making regular visits to his parish, baptizing children and blessing the dead in funeral homes and crematoriums. He also holds outdoor services on the street, using a megaphone so that people stuck in their apartments can hear him. Every night, he distributes 200 meals to the hungry and homeless of Caloocan, the number of whom is constantly rising. Sometimes, the suffering he sees on the streets is so great that he provides them shelter in his church until they have managed to pick themselves up.
This pandemic is the most terrible thing he has experienced in his life, Vasquez says. Though he has had plenty of experience with crises, war and natural disasters. In 2008, he was transferred to the island of Mindanao, right in the middle of a war between Muslim separatists and the Philippine army. Hundreds of people died, and tens of thousands were driven from their homes. Vasquez transformed his church into an evacuation center for refugees of all faiths.
Then, in 2013, the Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people, and Vasquez was there to help. Before he was transferred to Caloocan, he was the spiritual adviser to terrorists, drug barons, jihadis and warlords in the government’s witness protection program.
And now COVID,” he says, running his fingers through his thinning hair with a giggle and a shake of the head. “But this virus won’t stop me from doing what is expected of me as a priest. Journalists, doctors, garbage collectors and undertakers: They are all doing their duties. It would be a shame for the church to stop its work during this time of pandemic.”
Because even as desperation is growing each day, the calls for God in the Philippines are also growing louder. More forlorn. More demanding. “The people of the Philippines see us priests as a source of hope,” says Vasquez.
But hope is precisely what people are beginning to lose these days, the priest says. “Many people no longer see a way out and are committing suicide,” Vasquez says. He adds that several members of his parish have already taken their own lives.
One of them tried and failed: Jebrix Labitoria. The young man with newfound courage now spends Monday to Friday each week on the second floor of a building behind Vasquez’s church on a workbench, surrounded by rolls of material, spools of thread and the rhythmic humming of a sewing machine.
Next to him is his partner Maridel. They are making masks, aprons and tablecloths, for which they earn 7,200 pesos a month, the equivalent of around 120 euros. It’s not much, but it is enough to survive on.
When Father Ponpon heard the story of Jebrix’s suicide attempt, he was deeply shaken by the young couple’s desperation. He offered them the job, and since then the two have been sewing for the congregation. Now, they are again able to provide for their young son, says Jebrix Labitoria. “He is our savior.”