The first hope is here

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Philippine residents and U.S. Marines unload rice and water from two U.S. Marine Corps CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters for humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) at Cauayan Airport in Cauayan City, Philippines, | Photo taken Oct. 22, 2010, by LCpl Robert J. Maurer/USMC. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The luck of the Filipino does not obviously lie in its insulation from typhoons, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. But, in a special way, and appreciated even more with some objective reflection, Filipinos seem to have had an invisible shield against COVID-19.

Our infection rate is in the hundreds of thousands, over either thousand have died, and the figures do not seem outstanding. But when we consider the human population density of Metro Manila, the even worse density of barangays hosting more than three million informal settlers, and the sustained poverty levels in these settlements, COVID-19 has not been able to do what it can do as evidenced in very developed countries. Even for that, we have been especially blessed.

Hunger has spiked and spiked badly. Joblessness or the lack of opportunity to earn has stalked the poor all throughout the pandemic. But the worst seems to be over although forecasts for 2021 remain bleak for the urban poor especially. Perhaps, it is the powerful Christmas spirit that can penetrate the walls of adversity. Perhaps, it is the forward wind promising signs of recovery around the corner. Perhaps, the active conversation about vaccines coming in 2021 has cracked what has been like total hopelessness. Their combination, though, has made lighter the cold fog that enveloped us since March.

I would like to mention that hope among the poor and hungry is decidedly more alive today than a few months ago. In the recent weeks, their poverty and hunger have been part of the narrative across sections of the private sector. There have been a few initiatives from the corporate side earlier in the game but, more companies are now actively finding ways to contribute their share. More inspiring, though, are the kind acts of individuals and small groups that are sprouting all over, doing soup kitchens, raising funds to buy food, repacking, and distributing food packs.

Hunger has spiked and spiked badly. Joblessness or the lack of opportunity to earn has stalked the poor throughout the pandemic. But the worst seems to be over, although forecasts for 2021 remain bleak for the urban poor especially.

The typhoons and floods of November did two things. First and most obvious, they devastated large swathes of Luzon, destroyed or damaged homes, buildings, and even crops. Second but not less obvious, the typhoons and floods activated massive sympathy and support like what we witnessed in the Taal eruption. Of course, the numbers of the November calamity victims were far greater than the Taal eruption so the generosity had to be divided by so many more.

The negativity triggered by the pandemic is, of course, not sustainable. Despite the fear of COVID-19 in our hearts and minds, we also face a contrasting reality – that we cannot continue to stay locked down and in virtual paralysis. There is that growing acceptance that we must face the fear of the pandemic even as we must find our way back to an active and productive life. Coupled with the first fear is the need to be hopeful, to build back our lives despite COVID-19.

“The point is this – that because we focus on other matters like a re-awakened economy, we are not anymore totally engrossed in getting ill or dying from COVID-19. Giving our fears less attention is the surest way not to be overwhelmed by them.”

There is yet no new normal. As we attempt to find the safest modus vivendi with the hated virus, that would be the experiment towards the new normal. We need to deliberately and intelligently finetune our journey back to a life that is more predictable and fruitful. We know there are landmines. But we have more information than nine months ago that today offers us greater capacity to micro-manage affected communities.

The point is this – that because we focus on other matters like a re-awakened economy, we are not anymore totally engrossed in getting ill or dying from COVID-19. Giving our fears less attention is the surest way not to be overwhelmed by them. Designing the normalization of our lives in a COVID-prone environment is challenging but itself is a deliberate choice to transcend fear.

The pathway towards transcending our fear and building pathways to avoid COVID-19 and hunger begins with knowing and monitoring the enemy. This is the reason for contact tracing as far as COVID-19 is concerned. When we know where the virus is, we can better contain it until it burns itself out in that area. The same is true for hunger. There is no reason we will not do a contact tracing of hunger. We did not because we did not care enough. But COVID-19 is teaching us that we should not take our poor and hungry for granted because they can be super-spreaders of the virus.

The largest number of underemployed or unemployed are the ranks of informal settlers. It’s also not just about their numbers but worse – their extreme population density. That is how they become super spreaders – by living in areas that are the most densely packed. If we pay more attention to them, if we give more value to them, not only would the virus be traceable, but their hunger will also become more visible to us. When we know who are hungry and where they are, we can better feed them and then help them fend for themselves.

“The road to recovery will be long and difficult, especially since a new formula is being demanded in building a new normal. But when people are hopeful, they will find both determination and solutions. More when the spirit of the Filipino people finds a common vision and mission.”

I wonder how many understand that COVID-19 infections and hunger can exist indefinitely only in total or sim-darkness. We cannot address problems we do not see or do not want to see. But the moment we begin to concentrate on them, the answers will simply come. If many can develop vaccines for a virus, they know little of, more than just many will come up with various solutions to the hunger of Filipinos. The mere fact that we pay enough attention to something means that it is important to us. Hunger will end when caring begins.

The road to recovery will be long and difficult, especially since a new formula is being demanded in building a new normal. But when people are hopeful, they will find both determination and solutions. More when the spirit of the Filipino people finds a common vision and mission. We just need to take care of our own who urgently need taking care of. If we are willing to sacrifice the hungry among us, we will honor fragmentation over bayanihan. That guarantees our collective failure.

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