‘Extended vacation’ a full year of Dickensian sorrow

For most Filipinos, the “cruelest” month of 2020 was not The Wasteland’s April but the month before it. It was in mid-March of 2020 when an unforgiving lockdown, described by an Asian Development Bank study as the second most stringent in the Asian region after Nepal was ordered by the national government to rein in the spread of Covid-19. The enhanced community quarantine, later to be known in our pandemic-era lexicon as ECQ, allowed very little mobility, commerce and trade.

“Shelter-in-place” in the hamlets of poverty in both urban and rural areas meant as many as a dozen people marooned in a windowless shanty topped by corrugated tin roof, stale breaths, sweating bodies, empty stomachs and all. The torture of confinement was, however, their minor problem. It was how to eke out basic survival, where to get the next meal, how to be in a state where even the basic freedom to do back-breaking, dehumanizing jobs for survival was not available as a lifeline. (Picking up somebody else’s trash for reselling to the junk shops was banned.)

Or it was about where to get the money to pay for the medicine of the sick and the elderly, the cheap and generic kind, and the cheapest nutrient-sapped milk for the infants.

Mid-March was the start of the amalgam of hunger, desperation and hopelessness. In a context of fear, fear of a strange virus that was then killing people in Wuhan, China, with startling ferocity and efficiency.

In the rendering of T. S. Eliot, even the cruelest month of the year was capable of “breeding lilacs out of dead land” and “stirring dull roots with spring rain.”  The start of the harsh lockdown in March of 2020 bred not a sliver of hope despite the predisposition of the Filipino Everyman to see light at the end of every dark and sinister tunnel.

The overall fallout from the harsh lockdown was swift and brutal. In the first quarter of 2020, with only the half month of March covered by the lockdown, growth fell by 0.7 percent, the first drop in the growth rate since 1998.

In the second quarter of the year 2020, with the ravages of March setting the trend, the Philippine growth rate contracted by 16.5 percent, which on record was the lowest single quarter drop in performance since 1981. Officially, the government said after that record-beating drop that the Philippines was in a recession.

In April of 2020, the jobless rate was 17.7 percent, the lowest on record, in a context where the worst features of the national economy were undercounted by the official tallies. Workers who failed to work because of constraints on mobility and health totaled 38.4 percent.

How many just moved out of the labor force? The labor participation rate, which developed economies use as a basis in helping determine the real state of joblessness, also dramatically collapsed. And with massive joblessness in an almost-closed economy came massive hunger.

From May to July last year, 1 in every 5 Filipinos suffered from involuntary hunger, not food-challenged as the politically correct frames it, but hunger to the point of desperation.
The survey that reported on hunger was itself constrained by the Covid-19 restrictions (they had to do it via mobile phones, not in-person survey) and was prevented from fully probing the true state and depth of the hunger woes. Were we to add the poor families that can’t even afford cellular phones, the one in five could have been one in four or lower. What was the true state of hunger in Muslim Mindanao, where poverty and illiteracy rates have hovered on 50 percent since time immemorial?

But the hunger toll may be more devastating on infants and children of school age. The rough estimate of school children suffering from malnutrition prepandemic had historically been on the 8-million level. How did the pandemic exacerbate the hunger woes of that specific population cohort, the future of the Fatherland?

The year 2020 closed with a historic contraction, a 9.5-percent drop in the country’s GDP, or P1.5 trillion lopped off the country’s economy. Not since the   full-blown bankruptcy in the dying days of the Marcos rule has the country been through this epic meltdown.  Of the major economies in Asia, the Philippine economy suffered from the worst battering, with Vietnam posting an impressive 2.9-percent growth rate.  Any hope of a 2021 rebound, which is the expectation of most countries in the Asean, has been shattered by fumbling and bumbling efforts on vaccine acquisition.

Last on the vaccination line, last on the recovery efforts. The incalculable toll of the pandemic had its public face in Michelle Silvertino, who collapsed and died at the hard ground of a Pasay City overpass after waiting for the Bicol-bound bus that never came.

Or Lolito Estelloso, who collapsed on a public road, then died of cardiac arrest, while on his way to the Tagum City offices of the Department of Social Welfare and Development to check on whether his “wait-listed “status for the government ayuda had changed to a final grant.

There were many like Lolito and Michelle in the far-flung areas outside of the media (mainstream media and social media) loop. The Dickensian suffering was beyond what they could bear.

A Palace apparatchik recently said with his usual glibness that some traditional holidays have been taken off the list this year because Filipinos had a year-long “vacation.” Implying the brutal year, the annus horribilis, was spent like a vacation in the traditional sense.

Bloviating from his seat of power, working in a gilded place must have shielded him from the realities of the rough-and-tumble life of those outside of the Palace gates. His well-fed, fully satisfied life has failed to grasp the mass deprivation outside of his isolated fortress.

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