By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY
Michelle Silvertino was a 33-year-old single mother who left her family in Bicol to work as a helper in Metro Manila. When government placed Luzon under lockdown, Michelle so wanted to be with her family that she walked, according to reports, all the way from Quezon City to Pasay City, hoping to catch a bus home. But with travel to the provinces suspended and public transportation put on hold, she was stranded under a footbridge for several days. Michelle was later found unconscious and taken to a hospital where she died a few days after.
For many observers, Michelle’s tragic death is yet another example of government’s insensitivity and lack of compassion for ordinary citizens whose lives have been turned upside down by the lockdown.
According to the latest survey of the Social Weather Stations (SWS), an estimated 4.1 million Filipinos of working age were stranded as a result of the government-mandated lockdown. Some 490,000 were unable to leave Metro Manila, considered as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. An estimated 1.8 million were stranded in Balance Luzon, 710,000 in the Visayas, and 1.1 million in Mindanao.
These citizens are not invisible. Some of them have camped out for weeks on sidewalks, footbridges, and under the expressways near bus stations and airports. Michelle was one of them.
Some of them have even resorted to begging for food, a fate they share with jeepney drivers unable to drive their vehicles. Returning Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), feted as our modern heroes befitting a red carpet welcome, have been forced to sleep on sidewalks, with no government personnel to welcome them or provide them with transportation.
Following outrage over Michelle’s death and the torrent of criticism hurled at government, senior officials announced that help will be extended for the stranded citizens. Some of them have been provided temporary shelter at a public school. They will reportedly undergo rapid testing for COVID-19 before being sent home.
Government should have anticipated that there will be citizens who will be stranded and would need help. Provisions should have been made — as early as March when the lockdown was announced — to provide them with food, shelter, and medical care until they can be allowed to go home to their provinces. But it took the death of a single mother — not from COVID-19 but from government’s lack of foresight and compassion — to force government to act.
If government had failed to anticipate, then it should have acted immediately to extend help. Surely the officials involved in crafting and implementing lockdown policies have either seen for themselves or at least read about these stranded citizens in social media.
Yet those in government had acted, prior to Michelle’s death, as if these stranded kababayans did not exist. And no one seems to have remembered that it is government’s responsibility — their responsibility — to care for these citizens. Government officials who acknowledged their existence dismissed them as being hard-headed. “Matigas ang ulo,” they said. Sadly, it appears that blaming the citizens for government’s failing — ignoring in the process the basic duty to care, provide, and serve — has become part of the communication template.
This rigidness and lack of compassion extends only to ordinary citizens, the poor and the voiceless who have surrendered their fate to the mercies of government and their leaders. It has become a mantra for the authorities to warn citizens of severe penalties for breaching the mandated lockdowns. Thousands have been arrested. Several were even forced to spend the night inside dog cages or subjected to inhumane treatment. Some have been whipped with batons, and some have been shot.
However, government has displayed that it can, if it is so inclined, bend the rules and show compassion for a privileged senator who broke quarantine protocols and put others at risk, and an equally privileged senior police official celebrating his mañanita. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens like Michelle die poor and hungry on the streets without even receiving a small ounce of compassion from their government.