Compassion

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

| Photo by Alex S. Leung via Creative Commons/Flickr

I do not have to repeat our strange and fearful experience the first time around. However, I want us to recall the last 17 months because we are still in lockdown, and we have no idea what is next. We are simply praying and hoping that things will be better before the end of August. Up to now, we are guessing our way through.

I will cite some very recent statistics. They are about human beings, Filipinos, and let us try to see names, faces, and places as I go through the numbers.

Seventeen percent say they are not poor, meaning these roughly 19 million out of 110 million Filipinos are the luckiest ones, the least afraid to become poor, much less hungry. 49 percent say they are poor. Nothing strange because 40 – 60 percent of Filipinos have traditionally said they were poor throughout the last 20 years that I have been following data from SWS. Because they are poor, the hungry first come from them, a hunger hovering from 14 – 30 percent in these 17 pandemic months. Then, the balance of 34 percent is now fearful of falling into poverty.

With numbers such as these, we can deduce that incomes for most Filipinos decreased. If the 34 percent right below the lucky 17 percent say they are now apprehensive about being poor, their family income must have been in the P50,000 level or less. That means the 49 percent who say they are already poor must be in the P30,000 [er family per month bracket – and their incomes have shrunk as well. Shrinking incomes mean a shrinking market or a market that has already shrunk before this August shutdown in Metro Manila.

I am not an economist. I understand enough as a layman to grasp macro settings, but I have no extra expertise there. For over 30 years, the greater part of my life has been with community development and anti-poverty work. In those fields, I have vast experience and good insights, too. I have always seen poverty and hunger in many cities, towns, and provinces, but never in the context of a pandemic that remains substantially unpredictable.

Poverty and hunger always bring pain. Yet, even in pain, there is a spectrum of intensity. Fear and the lack of clarity about the greater environment raise more confusion and despair. The poor depend on the government and the rich. But when the poor see that government and the rich themselves also feel the pressure, hope fades away. When the rich and powerful lose their own confidence, what is there for those with much less or nothing?

“People are hungry. The community pantries were an eye-opener, less for the approximately 7,000 pantries that operated in the Philippines but more for the millions of Filipinos who swallowed their dignity to line up for free food wherever and whenever they could.”

The pandemic affects us all – citizens, businesses, and the government. We know the pandemic is nobody’s fault, not in the Philippines anyway, and a collective depressive situation is not the time for finger-pointing. However, early on, the government took a very authoritarian posture in managing the pandemic. I am sure that the spirit of paternalism motivated government, and I appreciate that it stepped up. At the same time, if the exercise of almost dictatorial authority is what the government chose to do and what the Filipinos chose to abide by, I can only look to the government for credit or blame, nobody else.

Not being an economist, a bureaucrat, or a politician, I have a wide tolerance for their errors, considering the pandemic is a first for all of us. However, I have a narrower tolerance for stupidity and a narrower still for mismanagement with a nuance of corruption. I hope that those mismanaged for personal gain suffer a fate commensurate to the pain they have caused millions of Filipinos, particularly the poor and the hungry.

People are hungry. The community pantries were an eye-opener, less for the approximately 7,000 pantries that operated in the Philippines but more for the millions of Filipinos who swallowed their dignity to line up for free food wherever and whenever they could. In other words, the hunger that afflicts tens of millions suddenly had faces, names, and places. The hunger was muted because the government did not like to highlight it. In the shadows, however, hunger was hidden and elicited little concern.

When hunger surfaced, why were the community pantries not supported – and in certain cities and barangays, asked to stop operations for various reasons (health protocols mostly). Today, the Metro Manila mayors asked for ayuda even before deciding to go on ECQ because they knew many were already going hungry, and many more would follow. Hunger is the elephant in the room that we all should address.

“Our first and last option should be compassion, the empathy to look at those hurting the most and do our best to ease their pain.”

I understand that the national government is scrambling for funds for ayuda. After all, the economic performance of the Philippines has suffered a huge blow in this pandemic. I understand, too, that the private sector, specifically the business sector, experienced 77 percent temporary closure in 2020 and 15 percent permanently closed, mostly in 2021. Even sadder, an estimated 4 million students did not enroll anymore, while hundreds of thousands from private schools transferred to public schools.

There is only one thing we all can do despite our limitations. Government and Filipino citizens can have and share compassion. Let us do away with all obstacles to providing food to the hungry; in fact, let us pray that government lends its power so more Filipinos can help other Filipinos. Our first and last option should be compassion, the empathy to look at those hurting the most and do our best to ease their pain.

The Covid-19 pandemic is less of a political challenge than a cultural one. We are revealing to one another what binds us as a people or what separates us. We are all under a microscope here. We can neither run nor hide. Filipinos will come to grips in this great trial of our history if we are truly worth what we believe we are.

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