A Quezon City parish's tangled battle to protect a poor community from COVID-19

Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 23 2020 10:30 PM

Days before the Luzon-wide community quarantine, Fr. Gilbert Billena was already packing medicines, soaps, and food that he planned to distribute to a shantytown near his parish in Barangay Bagong Silangan, Quezon City.

After helping in relief efforts in previous natural or man-made disasters, the priest was preparing for the next one by keeping excess medical and food supplies from donations.

“There’s always a ‘next one,’” Fr. Billena quipped.

As confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Philippines continue to rise, the priest races against time to protect informal settlers from the fast-spreading virus.

In a previous interview with DZMM Teleradyo, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said cases could increase to 70,000 to 75,000 in 3 months based on modeling forecasts.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, health experts have recommended frequent handwashing and social distancing, but for the urban poor communities in Metro Manila, this is easier said than done.

Victor Villar, 44, rents a small shanty in Bagong Silang. For 1000 pesos per month, he shares an 8-square-meter space with his wife and 10 children.

Only a thin plywood wall separates Victor's family from their neighbors. With no pipes connected to his house, Victor buys water from his neighbor for his family to shower. A pail of water costs him 4 pesos. 

Working as a pedicab driver, Victor earns about 400 pesos on a good day. However, as more residents choose to stay at home, he barely makes enough money to feed his family.

“How can pedicab drivers like Victor buy alcohol or vitamins if he could not even buy food?” Fr. Billena asked.

In Bagong Silangan, the parish works double-time to cook sardines, noodles, and rice for the poor. Fr. Billena admits that they are stretching their limited supplies since the parish does not have enough money to provide for everyone.

“What will happen to this community if one resident catches the virus?” Fr. Billena said. 

“Our parish is stepping up to support our frontliners and our barangay. We want to fight the paranoia that this pandemic has caused. Fear will keep us from thinking creatively,” the priest said. 

“There are many ways to help. We must use our creativity to help those in need.”

Fr. Billena prepares medical and food supplies that he plans to distribute to informal settlers who are mostly daily wage workers. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Having participated in relief efforts in previous disasters, Fr. Billena prepares for the next calamity by keeping excess medical and food supplies from donations. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Pedicab drivers' incomes drop as more and more Filipinos stay at home during the community quarantine which began middle of March. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Victor Villar, a pedicab driver, shares a small shanty with his wife and 10 children. The makeshift house is divided into 4 spaces. Victor's family occupies two units, while his two neighbors rent the other 2. Families who live in tight spaces can't practice social distancing, even with their neighbors. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

The most urgent and basic need for the poorest residents of Bagong Silangan according to Fr. Billena is food. Residents are more afraid of dying from hunger than catching COVID-19. The priest distributes food to families in informal settlements. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

To prepare the urban poor community against COVID-19, Fr. Billena demonstrates proper handwashing to Victor's family at their home in Bagong Silangan, Quezon City. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

One of Victor's sons is seen taking care of his baby inside their makeshift home in Bagong Silangan, Quezon City. Victor rents a small shanty that he shares with his wife and 10 children. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Fr. Billena takes children to a water pump to make sure that they take a shower. Health experts recommend proper hygiene and social distancing to prevent contracting or spreading COVID-19. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Fr. Billena makes sure that children have showered. Before the community quarantine started, the priest made rounds in the community to educate families about COVID-19 and what they can do to protect themselves from the virus. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Children walk back home after showering at the neighbor's water pump. Many informal settlers have no access to water at home. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Children buy popcorn from a street vendor in Bagong Silangan, Quezon City. Daily wage workers and informal workers, like street vendors, will likely suffer loss or decline in income during the community quarantine. This poses bigger challenges in providing for their respective families. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News