Displaced jeepney drivers place a countdown of the prevailing enhanced community quarantine on one of the passenger jeeps as they appeal for help from passers by along Nagtahan in Manila a day before Labor Day, April 30.
The STAR/Miguel de Guzman
Coping in quarantine: A hard time for all but inequality makes it worse
Kristine Joy Patag (Philstar.com) - June 21, 2020 - 10:15am

Part 1 of a two-part feature. Read Part 2 here.

MANILA, Philippines — The COVID-19 pandemic caught the whole world by surprise and governments are still scrambling and struggling to address the virus as scientists look for a vaccine and cure.

According to a sociologist, the government's response in the Philippines has brought to the fore a long-standing problem: "Inequalities in power or wealth."

"What used to be a daily watch for lotto results for many of our kababayans became an everyday watch for victims and deaths due to COVID-19. It became a daily ritual for many to check the changing forms of communal restrictions and inefficiencies in governance," Sociology professor Mario "Mayong" Aguja told Philstar.com in an email.

Aguja is president of the Philippine Sociological Society and teaches at the Department of Sociology of the Mindanao State University-General Santos City. He holds a doctorate degree in International Cooperation Studies from Nagoya University in Japan and a master's degree in Sociology at the University of the Philippines in Diliman.

"We have seen the privileges of the few during the crisis, abuse of power and the insensitivities to the plight of the masses. The normal that we heavily criticized as sociologists are now being replaced by a ‘new normal,’ which neither new, nor normal, nor equitable,” Aguja says in his paper "COVID-19 Pandemic from a Sociological Lens."

READ: Palace on quality of life survey: All of us are having a hard time

More stressors and stress for marginalized

"Our approaches to COVID-19 pandemic, especially the quarantine, have surfaced our most significant social faultiness—inequality," he stresses.

The government has been gradually easing protocol restrictions and opening up the economy after a two-month lull since March 15. Metro Manila, considered the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, transitioned to a looser general community quarantine on June 1.

The second phase of public transport resumption will start on June 22, allowing UV Express and public utility buses to again ply the roads. Modern jeepneys, too, will can start operations, but the traditional jeepneys are still waiting for word when they can again operate.

Some jeepney drivers have gotten by through donations, while others protested their loss of livelihoods and were sent to jail.

RELATED: Subsidy doubled to retire old jeepneys, but assistance still insufficient

Thinktank IBON Foundation said that the tens of thousands jeepney drivers in Metro Manila have each lost an estimated P78,000 worth of earnings since public transportation was suspended.

But ever since the lockdown, the only restriction enforced against private vehicles has been a limit on the number of passengers and that they should only be used for essential travel.

The marginalized have more stressors than others because, as Aguja points out, "survival depends on their daily income, [and their] lockdown abode is devoid of any amenities." 

Unlike those whom influencer James Deakin said early in the lockdown were only called "to sit on the couch and watch Netflix," the poor spent the lockdown in smaller house spaces and without the airconditioning or access to the internet that have let more affluent Filipinos spend the quarantine on Netflix or watching K-dramas.

The national government rolled out the Social Amelioration Program to provide cash assistance to families affected by the lockdown. But the program has seen problems with funding, incomplete or outdated lists of beneficiaries and delays in distribution.

RELATED: Government scrambles fund search for bigger DSWD cash aid

Other local government units took the initiative to source funds for families not covered by SAP by postponing other projects or even auctioning off their personal belongings.

"For many, it is a daily struggle of finding means to survive with dignity—to feed one’s family, and to make meaningful the inconvenience of passing the time," Aguja says.

“While some got dismissed from their jobs, others did not even have the privilege of having a decent job. To rest means ‘death’ for many of them and their families.” 

READ: Why some are saying 'social distancing' is a privilege

"The majority of those who were found violators of the lockdown were all just trying to find means to survive economically and socially, at high risk."

 "Trying to earn a living, or of just meeting relative or friends, became social desires during the time of the pandemic but of scarce supply," he also says.

‘Home as a prison’

The lockdown too poses a problem for those with dysfunctional families as it forced some to live with their abusers "for an extended time."

"Children, especially girls, got abused at home. Children who had the privileged school lunches due to malnutrition were now deprived of food," Aguja says.

"For them, the home became akin to prison."

The Commission on Human Rights in late April launched an online platform where people can report incidents of violence against women and children while living under coronavirus lockdown.

In his latest report to the Congress, Duterte said police tallied 2,183 reports of violations against women and 2,077 against children.

Those who headed out of their homes amid the risk of catching the coronavirus were merely trying to survive, Aguja adds.

Where is help?

Alongside the threat of the coronavirus is another risk that has been compounding as the quarantine stretches on: that on people's mental and social health.

The Philippine National Police, recognizing the stress that their officers are under while enforcing the quarantine, has formed a 'care group' to address their physical and mental health

The World Health Organization said in May that "in times of extreme experiences brought by COVID-19, it is likely that people feel fearful and anxious... providing mental health and psychosocial support during the time of COVID-19 pandemic is important."

The Department of Health, on its Healthy Pilipinas website on COVID-19, offers 'Brain Break Tips' to help maintain mental health during the quarantine and has set up hotlines at the National Center for Mental Health — 0917-899-USAP (8727) or 899-USAP (8727) — and a Mind Matters hotline at 09189424864.

Aguja says "the imposed ‘physical distancing’ often mislabelled ‘social distancing’ during the crisis, escalated during the lockdown and greatly affected our innate need for daily social interaction—of making sense of our real world with others."

There were "Good Samaritans" who helped foster social solidarity at the community level, he says, but this was just a trickle "compared to the total demands." Restrictions on movements also made social solidarity difficult.

There were interventions, the Sociology professor says, but these too were not accessible to everyone. There were webinars that focused on making sense of people’s experiences and platforms were created to manage concerns on creeping mental health problems.

"Unfortunately, it catered mostly to the middle- and high-income classes who had the privilege of internet access," the sociologist adds.

"Counseling, both medical and psychological, were mainly available to COVID-positive or to persons under investigation, not to the whole populace who equally suffers, and therefore severely in need of those services during quarantine," Aguja also says.

A Social Weather Stations mobile phone survey released Thursday showed that 83% of working-age Filipino respondents said their quality of life got worse compared to a year ago, recording the “worst” trend in its survey history.

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