The threat of grumbling stomachs

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    LAWYER Joel Butuyan, in his column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer titled “Amelioration turned nightmare,” warned President Duterte that “he is risking a social upheaval beyond his imagination” with the way the government is bungling its health and relief programs while most of the country is on lockdown.

    There is no question about the necessity of a lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19 that has afflicted more than 2 million people worldwide (6,599 in the Philippines) and claimed the lives of 170,561 (437 in the Philippines) as of April 21.

    As authorities and health workers race to save the lives of those who have been infected (more than 653,000 have recovered, 654 of them in the Philippines), thousands of families are struggling to keep alive, battling hunger and desperation.

    Without work, without savings, without resources, what will a father feed his family?

    That’s the lament of Marilyn Robles, head of the Lupus Foundation of the Philippines, about her carpenter and his family.

    With the Luzon-wide lockdown going on its sixth week, food supply for the poor has long been consumed. That’s why we saw the scramble for food relief by the residents of Sitio San Roque in Barangay Pag-asa in Quezon City, early this month.

    Hungry stomachs forget social distancing.

    Marilyn said she gave the carpenter a few thousand pesos more than the payment for his services but how long would that last for a family of six? They got their share of Las Pinas City’s relief goods consisting of a few kilos of rice and canned goods.

    She said the carpenter lives in a depressed area outside their village and he told her that most of the families in the area are in the same situation.

    He related that the families in the area are sharing what little they have with each other. But they are worried of the days when there would be nothing to share.

    This is the same pain and fear I sensed in the article written by entrepreneur Johannes L. Chua in the Manila Bulletin.

    Chua said he was forced to close his businesses (restobars, drinking joints, and an unli-wings outlet) when the lockdown was imposed on March 17. He gave his three dozen employees their salaries, their share from the service charge, and some marinated chicken wings.

    He told his workers that it was just a temporary setback. “We can survive two weeks. This quarantine is nothing.”

    Excerpt from the Chua’s article:

    “Two weeks into the quarantine, everything seemed like a smooth-sailing journey. My workers, through our group chat, shared what they were doing in the provinces. One was in Quezon, another in Bataan, in Rizal, while one was in Nueva Vizcaya. What I saw every morning were photos of nature scenes, beaches, sunsets, and clouds. I always saw the comment sana all or a happy emoji.

    “When two weeks passed, entering Lent, and with announcement that the lockdown was extended until April 30, moods started to change. I noticed that it started with a single message.

    “Sir, ok lang po ba? (Sir, is it okay?)

    “It was vague. It came from my cook Rey, 50 years old.

    “I replied: ‘Anong ok (What’s okay)?’

    “Wala na po kami makain, sir (We don’t have anything to eat, sir),” he responded. I immediately remembered his four kids, the youngest at eight and the oldest, a 16-year-old lanky boy.

    “I hesitated at first, because Rey, who has been with me for three years, is the silent type. He has never bothered me with any personal requests. This time, however, it was a different tune.

    “I wanted to reply ‘Did you go to your barangay? Did the DSWD help you already? What about your mayor?’ But I held back. I imagined myself in his place—the head of a family, swallowing pride, to ask for food.

    “I called him. On the other line, all I understood was help was not arriving in his place. He lined up at the barangay hall, confronted their barangay captain, and went to various offices, but nothing arrived, not even a grain of rice.

    “And I could hear him, not sobbing, but wailing.

    “I couldn’t recall his exact words after that phone conversation, all I could remember was his wail, which played in my mind again and again, in a loop.”

    There were more sob stories from Chua’s employees.

    He ended his article with the same question that my friend, Marilyn, is grappling with: “Should I help them? I have already helped my workers, isn’t it enough? Are they fooling me and taking advantage? Am I just feeling guilty? Or am I just feeling cabin fever?

    “COVID-19 is a real threat and we should really stay at home, but what if you are in the place of Rey, Gerry, or Danny? What would you have done? I have more questions without answers.”

    The grumbling of hungry stomachs is a social volcano in the making.

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