Address immediate concerns

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Local government food assistance to those in need amid COVID-19 . | Photo courtesy of foodbanking.org

Amid a tempest, what do we do? Inside a calamity, what do we do? When a virus chases us, and hunger catches us, what do we do?

There are many ways to react when we are attacked from many sides, but the most important is not to panic. To do so is to get beaten up, eaten up, and rendered inutile by paralysis. Yet, that is what most of us did in our first-ever experience of a pandemic.

I repeat what I pointed out in my weekly articles in the first two months of strict nationwide quarantine – the almost total state of unpreparedness of Philippine communities. It matters little that many other countries had their own level of helplessness; what matters is how helpless we were.

Today, 7 months later, if we must remember one thing, it is that state of unpreparedness, that level of helplessness. Going forward needs remembering backwards. It means what we forget and do not learn from what is doomed to happen again.

Helplessness is equivalent to lack of capacity, lack of discipline, and lack of command. Helplessness reflects where we are as a people in our journey to our potential. Helplessness in the face of COVID-19 means we are like children, unable to help ourselves, and completely dependent on our parents in a time of adversity.

“Helplessness is equivalent to lack of capacity, lack of discipline, and lack of command. Helplessness reflects where we are as a people in our journey to our potential.”

I do not have to explain how poverty, economic and otherwise, has been the underbelly of our collective helplessness. I cannot mean here the poverty of a few. To cause such a level of helplessness means the poverty of not only many but the majority. I do not know how officialdom measures poverty, who falls below the line and who are above it. I just know that the present measures are pitifully wrong.

Let me give a clear example. In the emergency response of government, known as Bayanihan Act or specifically Bayanihan 1, the National Government budgeted support funds for 18 million families. That 18 million families represent approximately 85% of the total population of families in the country. I believe that the very intention to budget emergency support of 85% of families in the Philippines reflected the government’s own assessment of how helpless we were. I cannot agree more with government’s decision then, or its assessment of the kind of assistance that 85% would need.

Government clearly saw the scale of need and quickly tried to allocate funds and mandate a massive distribution of the same. I can only ask government today not to forget that moment and to remember the lessons as it tries to go forward. And, by this, I mean the government must begin with a major reassessment and rearrangement in the truer measurement of poverty lines and economic classifications.

“We have hunger incidences at 31% across the nation, and 40% in the Visayas. How does this square with poverty figures below 20% in the beginning of the year? It does not pay to protect our pride by giving fancy names …”

We have hunger incidences at 31% across the nation, and 40% in the Visayas. How does this square with poverty figures below 20% in the beginning of the year? It does not pay to protect our pride by giving fancy names and subtitles to poverty only to create assistance packages that consider all the vulnerable as poor anyway.

If the government, on a regular basis, is unable to provide all of them with safety nets, then so be it and be transparent about it. How do we call our middle class as middle class except for their numerical dominance? In terms of economic strength, they cannot withstand a 3-month lockdown (and what more if 6 months) without food assistance?

Classifying our population properly, especially the lower 50%, is critical when the economy sours. The pandemic and its impact are said to be more long-term than originally thought, with expert economists saying that there is no immediate rebound. NEDA has warned that urban poverty will be worse in 2021. Yet, we read that DSWD still has P10 billion that it is considering returning to the national treasury – while hunger goes up. It simply means that the level of poverty according to DSWD measures is somehow detached from reality.

Whatever the current state of our economy, and however that translates to the daily life of Filipinos, we cannot stay in the doldrums. We have been there long enough to know that we must claw our way back to activity no matter the odds. We must accept the reality of COVID-19 as unfortunate and a continuing threat, yet we must adapt and co-exist with it. This means a whole new campaign by government and other experts from the private sector.

Two things, then, must be addressed by us citizens even if we do not wait for government to act. We must discuss with ourselves, especially within our communities, how to contain the spread of the virus in the context of work and travel activity. We must resolve to shake the fear out of our system and restart hope, forcing it to unfold by aggressively looking for ways to be more productive. We must dream again, soon, now.

At the same time, we must address the hunger of those already suffering from it – immediately, urgently, as if we are in a state of calamity. No ifs, no buts, no waiting for government, in any way we can as Filipinos extending assistance to brother Filipinos. We must not waste time trying to point fingers at who should feed the hungry. It is us, we who are not hungry, we must feed the hungry with any spare money we have, for as long as we can.

“There is no excuse for government not to move with urgency as well. Yet, the responsibility of government is theirs while the responsibility of citizens is ours. We are a community, one people, all sons, and daughters of the motherland.”

There is no excuse for government not to move with urgency as well. Yet, the responsibility of government is theirs while the responsibility of citizens is ours. We are a community, one people, all sons, and daughters of the motherland. When brothers and sisters are hungry, we do not think – we just feed. And when their hunger is eased and gone, let us discuss how they must be guided on how to never go hungry again.

In the darkest moment, let our spirit be strong and our minds be clear.

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