By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY
Recent figures point to a troubling future ahead. Just last week, a Labor Department official said an estimated 1.9 million workers are expected to lose their jobs in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, over 300,000 Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) have been displaced by the pandemic as of May and are bound for home. The Labor Department estimates that by December 2021, over one million OFWs may be out of work.
But these are hard numbers. Numbers have human faces. I saw some of these faces – grim and gaunt – as I travelled along Roxas Boulevard last week.
They were mostly huddled together in the shade. Some of them held signs in the midst of the afternoon heat, asking motorists for either money or food. While Roxas Boulevard has always had its share of beggars, those begging were not vagrants but mostly workers from the so-called informal sector. According to some news reports, these are construction workers left to fend for themselves by their contractors, and jeepney drivers who have lost their livelihood with the imposition of a ban on public transportation. In an interview, one of them admitted he was ashamed to be begging for food. “We had to endure it so we can have something to eat,” he said. This reminded me of a news report I saw of a taxi driver who had lined up for cash aid only to be turned away. With tears running down his cheeks, he told a TV reporter: “It’s hard to be poor.” His original remark, delivered in the native tongue, hits you harder in the gut: “Ang hirap maging mahirap.”
The extended lockdown has driven hundreds of hungry Filipinos to the indignity of begging in order to survive. They do so knowing that they face the possibility of being arrested and punished harshly. But they have no choice. They rely on the charity of the few who are allowed to venture out of the streets mostly to buy basic necessities. Yet we must celebrate the spirit of sharing that I personally witnessed. Ordinary citizens alighted from their vehicles to give food. They were welcomed with wide and grateful smiles. And if ordinary citizens can share what they have during a pandemic, why not government agencies like the Social Welfare Department whose mandate is to assist the poor and needy, especially during a crisis?
The people, most especially the poor, have sacrificed more – have suffered more – during the past 70 days than at any time in recent memory. And many of them cannot be faulted for feeling abandoned by their government. The promised amelioration excluded thousands. In many localities, the poor were left to fend for themselves. Those arrested for violating the curfew and even for merely stepping out of their homes were treated like criminals by overzealous policemen and local officials. Fear and anxiety characterized those 70 days, and the next few weeks offer no hope of relief and certainty.
Government has recently announced a second wave of cash aid, but only in certain areas. There are plans of aid programs for workers and businesses. An ambitious assistance program for displaced OFWs carries a price tag of over P15 billion. Officials said this will fund, among others, skills training and livelihood assistance projects. But in a global economy where job opportunities have shrunk and in a local economy projected to be sluggish, such interventions may have little impact. Many Filipinos are bracing for the possibility of joining the ranks of the “new poor.” Economic and policy experts consider a spike in poverty rate a foregone conclusion.
The World Bank recommends several measures to mitigate poverty. These include continuing to provide cash aid for poor families, ensuring that these cash transfers are released quickly to the “existing poor” and the “new poor,” and the use of information for decision making and assessing the impact of social amelioration responses.
But the devil, as they say, is always in the details. One cannot sustain a long-term cash aid program when some legislators are more concerned about keeping money for their pet projects, and spending priorities are skewed by politics and profiteering. One cannot disburse assistance quickly when bureaucrats are either incompetent or inflexible, or both. One cannot make the right decisions when data is delayed, unreliable – or according to many observers – massaged. Lastly, one cannot correctly assess if decisions are making an impact when the decision makers prefer the comfort of air-conditioned offices rather than the harsh reality of life on the streets.