Family, faith fortify Filipinos against pandemic, perfidy

A woman wearing a protective mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus checks Christmas lanterns that are being sold along a street in Manila, Philippines in this file photo.

A VIRUS the size of a droplet is nearly breaking economies around the world; it made a mother’s world fall apart when three of her loved ones were infected.

The husband of Arlene (not her real name) was diagnosed in September when a routine company check, after another employee tested positive, confirmed the bad news.

A boy wears a face mask as he sells bags in the shopping district of Divisoria, in Manila, Philippines on December 18. Many Filipinos flock to this area to buy cheaper goods as they prepare for Christmas holidays in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation amid government health restrictions to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

During this time, Arlene was told her mother was also found positive for the virus.

As if fate taunted her, her 22-year-old son also got infected with Covid-19.

Lahat yata ng santo sa langit tinawag ko na maka-survive lang sila,” Arlene said. “Sabi ko, ako na lang, ‘wag na lang sila, akin na lang. Bigay niyo na lang sakin lahat, ‘wag lang sila. Nagmakaawa ako na please lang ibigay niyo na lang sakin (ang sakit).” [I called on all the saints in heaven just so my family will survive. I prayed they give me the virus instead and spare my family. I pleaded to just make me sick instead of my family.]

Battling Covid

ARLENE, a mother of two, said while her husband was asymptomatic, he remained in quarantine until November, away from his family and without earning a single cent during his confinement.

She received news of her mother’s condition afterward.

As a senior citizen who had weak health, her mother exhibited all the symptoms of Covid-19. But Arlene and her family decided against admitting their mother to the hospital where she will battle the disease among other Covid-19 patients in a Covid wing.

To prevent her condition from getting worse, their mother fought the virus at home. She was monitored 24/7 by Arlene’s cousin, a nurse in Quezon City where her mother lived.

Soon after, Arlene learned her son, an employee in an Ortigas-based company, experienced the more severe case of Covid-19 than what his father and grandmother acquired.

He decided not to tell his mother about his condition.

It was mother’s instinct: Arlene knew something was wrong with her son.

Her son stopped visiting and neither called nor accepted video calls. She said her son gave several excuses to not to talk; even her daughter-in-law refused to take her calls.

It was only after her son survived Covid-19 that she learned of the extent of his ordeal. The disease not only made breathing difficult but it also affected his kidney.

Escape ruin

COVID-19’s first victim in the family was Arlene herself.

During the lockdown imposed by the government to contain the spread of the pandemic in the early part of the year, her company decided to downsize and she was one who received the pink slip. This made her one of the millions of jobless Filipinos this year.

In her most desperate hour, she had to send her youngest to the house of a relative so that the child could eat.

With her source of livelihood gone, her husband in a quarantine facility, her mother also battling Covid-19 and her son recovering from the virus that almost killed him, Arlene’s anxiety worsened and she became depressed. The discrimination and the swirling gossip around her and her family’s misfortunes were unparalleled.

On top of that, no help from the government came. The paper from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) that made her eligible to receive help from the state did not turn into a golden ticket that would allow her family to escape financial ruin. Those in their community who also needed assistance waited and are still waiting for help that could save them from hunger and from begging in the streets.

Horrible year

SUFFICE it to say that 2020 is, indeed, a bad year.

There may be millions more like Arlene in the Philippines who had to suffer the brunt of the pandemic and the lockdown imposed by the government to contain the virus.

The latter, however, also brought down economies to their knees, made millions jobless, and more people sinking deeper into poverty.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick T. Chua admitted that this year has not been easy for the Philippines, as in other countries around the world. The Philippines, he said, had to prioritize saving lives, which prompted the government to restrict economic activity.

The same economic restrictions have caused the domestic and global economies to experience the worst recession since the second World War in the 1940s. This, nongovernment organization Ibon Foundation Inc. said, is the one that has made this year’s recession a unique one.

In an analysis, Ibon recorded a total of 14 global recessions “in the age of imperialism” and that 10 of these worldwide recessions were mainly due to crises that occurred due to “uncontainable economic pressures or imbalances erupting in the system and disturbing economic activity.” Ibon said the recessions in 1876, 1885, 1893, 1908, 1930-32, 1938, 1975, 1982, 1991 and 2009 occurred because of “overproduction-driven internal imbalances such as overinvestment or un-payable debt.”

At a standstill

IN the Philippines, the country faced a debt crisis in the early 1980s which caused growth to plunge by over 10 percent, which was nothing compared to the 16.5 percent contraction the economy registered in the second quarter of the year. Even the 11.5-percent decline in the third quarter was still worse than the performance of the gross domestic product (GDP) during the debt crisis years.

However, 2020 was different. The crisis stemmed from an enemy that cannot be seen a virus. As early as the end of 2019, reports from Wuhan, China stated that an unknown virus has spread and is killing Chinese citizens. By January 2020, Wuhan, a major industry and logistics hub, was placed on lockdown.

Toward the end of January, the BusinessMirror talked to economists who said the virus would likely lead to disruptions in the tourism and manufacturing sectors despite the government downplaying the impact of the health scare on the Philippine economy (See ‘Virus may disrupt PHL tourism, manufacturing here: https://businessmirror.com.ph/2020/01/28/virus-may-disrupt-phl-tourism-manufacturing/). But the economists were right and the virus, which also led to lockdowns in the country, had far-reaching effects, placing the entire economy practically at a standstill.

PSA data

THE National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) estimated that a total of 4.5 million Filipinos were rendered jobless this year. This after the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported that 3.81 million Filipinos were unemployed last October.

In July, there were 4.57 million unemployed and in April, the PSA reported there were 7.23 million Filipinos without work.

The loss of jobs has severely affected the country’s consumption which remains, to this day, the primary growth driver of the economy. Household final consumption expenditure (HFCE) contracted 9.3 percent in the third quarter after posting a decline of 15.3 percent in the second quarter. HFCE growth in the first quarter was flat at only 0.2 percent.

Based on PSA data, even rich Filipinos or those who have the means, are holding on to their cash as indicated by the steep decline in spending for valuables which includes heirloom jewelry, antiques, and other similar luxury items. Data showed the consumption of these valuables contracted 53.2 percent in the third quarter.

PSA data showed even government spending weakened this year. The weakness in government spending was pronounced in the third quarter when it grew only 5.8 percent, the slowest in 14 quarters. In the second quarter, government final consumption expenditure (GFCE) grew 21.8 percent and in the first quarter, 7 percent.

Poorer still

APART from GDP, it is estimated that more Filipinos will become poorer because of the pandemic and the state measures to try to contain it.

Poverty incidence, the World Bank said, is expected to increase to 22.6 percent this year from 20.5 percent in 2019. This is based on the $3.2 a day poverty line for lower middle-income countries like the Philippines.

The World Bank said a large share of breadwinners remained jobless even after the government started easing community quarantines (CQ). The report stated that sectors which lost the most jobs include construction at 31.3 percent; food services and accommodation, 25.6 percent; and trade, 25.4 percent.

“This year brought enormous challenges, not just to the Philippines, but also to all economies around the world,” Chua said in a recent briefing. “This has not been an easy year but in every crisis, there is also an opportunity to move our country forward.”

Yearning for more

WITH such an immense health crisis, which led to an economic fallout, the Associate Director of the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues at the Ateneo de Manila University, Anna Marie A. Karaos, said that the pandemic has highlighted problems in the country’s social protection system, weak healthcare system and lack of adequate housing facilities.

Karaos told the BusinessMirror via email a good social protection system is anchored on a comprehensive and reliable database. She said the National Household Targeting System being used for the “Pantawid ng Pamilyang Pilipino” program, or 4Ps, is inadequate and outdated. She added that Filipinos deserve a better system to bring help especially to the poor and vulnerable.

Further, Karaos said, the low quality of primary healthcare systems and the poor’s lack of access to these services have made it difficult to control the spread of Covid-19, particularly among Informal Settler Families (ISFs). This is compounded by the fact that many of these ISFs are living in cramped houses that prevent them from practicing social distancing.

Single-detached homes

UNDERSECRETARY and Popcom Executive Director Juan Antonio A. Perez III earlier said one major example is housing.

The PSA data showed 3.785 million Filipinos (27.2 percent of the country’s 13.867 million population) who live in 812,584 housing units that are under-20 square meters (sqm) each.

Perez has said that with an average number of 4.7 persons in each household, that leaves a living space of only 4.25 sqm per person, “making it nearly impossible to achieve physical distancing” during a pandemic. The Popcom Chief said the poorest in Metro Manila estimated at 2.066 million or 14.9 percent of the megacity’s population live in single-detached homes that are less than 20-sqm.

Further, in an earlier email to BusinessMirror, Eduardo C. Tadem of the University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies Program on Alternative Development (UP-CIDS AltDev), said the country’s gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, likely increased this year given the increase in poverty and joblessness.

Tadem, UP-CIDS AltDev Convener, noted that 40 percent of the labor force has resorted to taking on part-time work while 30.7 percent Filipinos experienced hunger this year. Many micro-, small- and medium-scale industries have also decided to close.

Trickled aid

PROBLEMS of inequality also abound during the pandemic. Mina Justo, an officer of the Alyansa ng mga Samahan sa Sitio Mendez, Baesa Homeowners Association Inc. (Asamba) said whatever aid they received from the government was insufficient.

The same rings true for citizens in far-flung areas, such as those belonging to the Ayta Mag-indi Community in Porac, Pampanga. The help extended to the aeta community was also not enough, they said.

The “ayuda” from the local government was only good for over 20 families. They had to divide the assistance so as many as 250 families could benefit. And out of 950 families that qualified for the Social Amelioration Program (SAP), only 417 received assistance from the government.

The insufficient help received is a common story among marginalized communities.

Apart from food and other basic needs, some 5,000 students in Lumad and Bakwit Schools were marginalized.

Rose Hayahay, a volunteer teacher in the Save Our Schools Network, said 178 Lumad schools are closed in Mindanao. Hayahay also said those students who are able to continue their schooling are challenged by the lack of internet and technology facilities as well as the means to purchase laptops.

A happy people

AMID all these challenges and despite economic difficulties in the recent past, Filipinos are considered among the happiest in Developing Asia. Based on the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Philippines is part of the top 10 happiest among developing economies in the region.

In a thematic chapter of the Asian Development Outlook (ADO), the ADB said Taipei, China, is the happiest economy followed by Singapore, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Republic of Korea, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Tajikistan and Hong Kong, China.

According to former National Statistical Coordination Board Secretary General Romulo A. Virola, who pioneered the country’s first happiness index, the Filipino’s happiness comes from community participation and volunteer work; cultural activities; education; family; health; income and financial security; leisure and sports; religion and/or spiritual work; technological know-how; work; economy; environment; government; politics; friends; sex life; love life; food; peace and security; and others.

The initial findings of that index showed that family remains the primary source of Filipino’s happiness.

Yes to family

UNIVERSITY of the Philippines Manila (UPM) Department of Behavioral Sciences (DBS) Assistant Professor Andrea B. Martinez told the BusinessMirror that placing family as the top source of happiness among Pinoys is basic for all Filipinos. Martinez said this is because it stems from something that is intrinsic in the Filipino value system, the sense of “kapwa” or shared identity.

“Economics is basic but you see how Filipinos are willing to go to great lengths to sacrifice economic welfare just for the sake of the family because family is central to us. Our happiness is defined for instance by how we make our family happy,” Martinez told the BusinessMirror. “The same reason explains the OFWs [overseas Filipino workers] willingness to sacrifice themselves, ‘mapalayo sa pamilya,’ [far from family members] because they think that they have the responsibility to make their family happy.”

Martinez added that material wealth is only secondary to Filipino’s happiness and that family is the driving force behind the success of every Pinoy. Unlike westerners who are individualists, Filipinos are collectivists and this defines how they respond to challenges in life.

She also said this explains how even during difficult times, such as the current pandemic, Filipinos are able to cope. Family is a primary driving force as well as humor; hardships come and go but the ability of Filipinos to make light of their situation helps them survive their struggles, Martinez said.

“Our ‘happy pill’ is our family,” Martinez told the BusinessMirror. “In the context of the pandemic for instance, the family plays a crucial role on how we can navigate the challenges and the stressors. If the government will do any intervention, it should be directed into the family unit. We always find our happy pill on whatever makes the family happy.”

Having jobs

DE La Salle University Economist Maria Ella C. Oplas told the BusinessMirror that family needs come first and would often make Filipinos find ways to make them happy. Oplas said this has become evident in this pandemic when many Filipinos who lost their jobs turned to online selling or taking on odd jobs just to get by.

PSA data showed that in the third and second quarters, Filipinos who were self-employed without any paid employees accounted for nearly a third or 29.3 percent of employed workers. In the second quarter this was at 28.7 percent while in October 2019, this was only at 26.7 percent.

The need to take on any job this year, Oplas explained to this reporter, is not because Filipinos desire material wealth but because a job will enable them to support their family in this challenging year.

“During this pandemic, we do anything to preserve our family what determines our happiness by taking on any job possible. During this pandemic, we Filipinos are able to survive because we started to count our blessings. Our family is still alive,” Oplas told the BusinessMirror. “I think those who became depressed during the pandemic not because of economics but the fear that their family might not survive this pandemic.”

Empty promises

However, Philippine Institute of Development Studies (PIDS) Senior Research Fellow Jose Ramon G. Albert told the BusinessMirror that family can also be a source of difficulty for Filipinos. This often happens when the term “resilience” is abused.

In some cases, Albert said, politicians manage to use Filipinos’ “resilience,” founded on Pinoy’s sense of family, for political gain. Some politicians identify themselves as part of the “Filipino family” and this resonates with Filipinos, making them vote and believe in promises made by politicians no matter how empty these promises may be.

“What we need to build among Filipinos is analytical thinking that can help us harness family relations or cope with difficulties caused by family. This Christmas, we Filipinos again put the family in the spotlight with the imagery of Jesus as our baby, a divine baby but a baby nonetheless, with innocence that gives us hope for the future. Ultimately, that hope should be borne from actions that will make us better persons tomorrow and that tomorrow starts today,” Albert said.

Albeit negative

THE Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) recently released the results of the fourth quarter Consumer Expectation Survey (CES) and the data “was less pessimistic” for the fourth quarter. Based on the data, the overall confidence index (CI) increased to -47.9 percent from -54.5 percent in the third quarter of 2020.

The central bank explained that the improved outlook was due to expectations of availability of more jobs and permanent employment; additional and high income; effective government policies and programs such as the SAP and the “Plant, Plant, Plant” program; and, less community restrictions, reopening of businesses and end to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The results of the survey showed that consumer sentiment was comparable to the less pessimistic outlook of consumers in Japan, South Korea, and Thailand for the last quarter of 2020.

“The improved CI, albeit remaining negative, indicates that the number of households with optimistic views increased, but was still lower than those with pessimistic views,” the BSP said.

Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development (ACERD) Director Alvin P. Ang told the BusinessMirror that more needs to be done to ensure that consumers regain their confidence and for the economy to recover in the coming year.

Limited revenues

ANG said the government should “spend, spend, spend” and partner with the private sector to make more financing available, given the revenue generation limitations at this time.

From January to November, state revenues slid by 9.56 percent to P2.62 trillion from P2.89 trillion in the same period last year. Despite this, the BTr said this already exceeded the P2.52-trillion revised full-year target by 4 percent.

As of end-November, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) collected a total of P1.788 trillion. While the BIR already exceeded its revised full-year program of P1.686 trillion by 6 percent, this is still 11.19 percent lower than the 11-month tally in 2019 of P2.013 trillion.

Ang said Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) can help in this regard, particularly in implementing infrastructure projects with a high multiplier effect. This year, a number, if not all, of the government’s infrastructure projects were severely affected by the lockdowns which did not allow construction activities to continue.

“(The government needs to) ensure an environment for business to recover and consumers to regain confidence,” Ang told the BusinessMirror. “They need to find financing and the share implementation (of these projects) with the private sector.”

Task for government

FOR Oplas, the primary task of the government is to secure vaccines and gradually lift the General Community Quarantine (GCQ) restrictions. She added that the government must also implement barangay-level monitoring of the Covid-19 cases as well as implementation of restrictions.

She said these will allow more businesses to open, which can pave the way for jobs to return. Jobs are crucial at this point given the dependence of the economy on consumption, according to Oplas. On top of this, jobs will secure the future of families and ensure that they are happy.

She told the BusinessMirror this may be a simplistic view but can be true for many families nationwide. Oplas said that as a Filipino, she can relate to this since surviving the pandemic as a family is one major source of happiness for her this year.

“I would really want the economy to slowly open so that business can go back to the new normal. Jobs will be back. With jobs comes security of provision for family. We will be happy,” Oplas said.

“Now more than any time before, I am happier just to see that we have survived as a family. We don’t have to be filthy rich. As long as we are still getting the basics, I’m happy,” she added.

Hope floats

AS for Arlene, 2020 is far from over, especially considering the bills they have to pay. Arlene is concerned that her P25,000 Meralco bill will further increase. Other utility bills are also expected to come running after them.

On top of these, her husband’s medical expenses not all of which was shouldered by the company will be difficult to pay for. In fact, she said, they had to loan P5,000 from another relative just to get his last swab test.

But there’s a glimmer of hope for her and her family. As of this writing, Arlene has been able to find a secure job. It’s not a job that she is used to doing but it can help them pay their bills. Her husband is back at work while her mother and son have also survived their ordeals with Covid-19.

Arlene is still thankful that their landlord, the aunt of her husband, has helped keep them out of the streets during this difficult time despite delays in their rent payments.

She also had a neighbor who commiserated with her misery and helped make 2020 bearable. Simple acts of kinds such as these were what helped her get through 2020.

Yearning for God

DESPITE everything that she went through this year, Arlene is still looking forward to a brighter future. Another relative has offered her and her husband a place to call their own in exchange for minimal payments. This gives her hope that their future would be brighter.

She is really hoping and praying that 2021 will be a kinder year for her and her family.

(Sa panahong ito), ngayon mo malalaman kung sino ang kaibigan mo sa hindi. Nung nagkaron kami ng problema, wala akong kaibigan eh, naglaho silang lahat. Itong 2021, extra-ingat na lang. Plano ko mag-ipon kaming mag-asawa kasi lahat ng pera namin (nagastos),” Arlene said. “Ngayong 2021, malay mo, [by] God’s grace, talagang ibibigay sayo yan, na walang pagsubok na ibibigay sayo na hindi mo kakayanin. Walang imposible sa Diyos.”

[The situation allowed you to know who your friend is and who is not. When we had a problem, I had no friends; they all disappeared. This 2021, we would be extra cautious. I plan to save because we spent all our money. Who knows, by God’s grace, we could get the money back and God would allow us not to suffer any more trials that we couldn’t exit from. Nothing is impossible with God.]

Image credits: AP/Aaron Favila


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