Gov't urged: 'Tweak' COVID-19 policies to help poor in quarantine quandary

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 21 2020 11:35 PM

MANILA - The government needs to "tweak" its policies to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) as its "applicability is challenged" in impoverished communities, anthropologists said on Tuesday.

The enhanced community quarantine policies "must be tweaked to accommodate" the "different situations in our communities," said Maria Carinnes Alejandria, Lead Research Associate for Social Health Studies in the University of Santo Tomas.

Families staying in impoverished communities, like Baseco in Manila, cannot comply with the government's social distancing rule, or the policy that mandates individuals to stay at least a meter away from other persons, Alejandria said in a webinar.

"Most of the time, houses [in Baseco] are just about 10 to 20 square meters and are almost attached to one another... They are confined to homes with spaces having multi-functions, meaning their living room is also their kitchen or their bedroom," she said.

Poor families, she added, are also incapable of adhering to the government's advice to frequently wash hands and opt for healthy means to fortify their personal defenses against the global pandemic, which has killed 437 people in the Philippines as of April 21.

"Balanced nutrition means that we need good food. Without a job and with donations coming in, this is becoming a difficult scenario for most of them," she said.

"Majority are reliant on food packages donated. The problem is that there is a repetition of this... It's just sardines most of the time," she said.

Some Baseco residents have started to dive for crabs and shellfish in Manila Bay to help feed their families as they grapple for food after their source of income was cut due to the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine, Alejandria said.

FOOD OR MEDICINE?

The lack of money has also forced the poor to choose between buying food or medicine for family members falling ill, said Dr. Joshua San Pedro, Community Physician for the Council for Health and Development.

"They are trapped between having money to feed your family or having money to attend to medical needs," San Pedro said.

"They have to look for other sources [of money] such as cockfighting and bingo because of the difficulty in attaining basic needs," he said.

Congress earlier passed the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act which allows the executive department to realign budget items to fund a 2-month subsidy program for 18 million indigent families affected by the coronavirus crisis.

Under the law, the "poorest of the poor" will be entitled to receive a monthly allowance between P5,000 and P8,000 for 2 months, but as of April 18, only 4 million families have received the cash aid from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, according to President Rodrigo Duterte's report to Congress.

This means 14 million indigent families have yet to receive financial aid over a month since the government imposed a lockdown to stop the spread of the virus in Luzon, the Philippines' most populous island.

'STRIP OF PRIVILEGES'

The Philippines needs a coronavirus policy "stripped of privileges" to ensure that the disease will not spread in congested slum areas, San Pedro said.

"What this pandemic has shown is that there is really a large distance between government services for the rich and the poor," he said, referring to the quality of healthcare accorded to Filipinos depending on their social classes.

"If they (government) want to insist on social distancing, we have to bridge that social distance," he said.

"We have to look at the structural problems with regards to poverty... Look at it properly and critically to see how it affects the poorest... and strip it of the privileges it fails to recognize," he said, without mentioning specific kinds of "privilege" enjoyed by some social classes during the pandemic.

Aside from cash grants, the government can insulate the poor from the virus by ensuring that there is adequate water supply in impoverished communities, Alejandria said.

"We have to rethink this concept of resilience. The problem here is that they get it (food and water) from Manila Bay. The toxicity of water in Manila Bay is very high," she said.

"The most important thing that both academics and people in government can do is to have a clear discussions with one another so that we have more culturally relevant and effective implementation of policies," she said.

"Public health policies must be revisited to include vulnerable populations... If we are going allow continued quarantine, we have to offer means of earning," she said.

Resigned Socio-economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia earlier said that the government hopes that the coronavirus pandemic would have a "transitory" impact on poverty numbers.

If the government can resolve the health crisis before the end of 2020, the Philippines can still meet its goal of bringing down poverty incidence to 14 percent by the end of President Rodrigo Duterte's term in 2022, he said.

"Fourteen percent by 2022 is still achievable given the swift reduction from 2015 to 2018," Pernia said. 

As of April 20, Duterte has yet to decide if he would extend the Luzon-wide lockdown as the Philippines has yet to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases in the country.

As of April 21, 6,599 patients in the country tested positive for COVID-19 with 437 deaths and 654 recoveries.