Glasson native Gavan Kennedy pictured in Sitio Marna, Philippines.

A Covid-19 lockdown in the Philippines

Gavan Kennedy, a Glasson native, writes about his experiences in the Philippines since December 2019.

Covid-19 lockdown began here in Cebu, Philippines’ second-largest city, on St Patrick’s Day last year. Cebu city’s 2.8 million people live on Cebu island (pop. 4.7 million), which is about the size of Kerry.

Since 2017, I’ve been on the road filming people around the world performing readings of pages from Finnegans Wake, the goal being to make a film version of Joyce’s epic modernist work. I’d finished a shoot at University of Philippines Diliman in Manila in December 2019 and was doing a workshop for the next shoot at Cebu Normal University, when the world’s strictest lockdown (according to The Economist) began.

Faced with indefinite confinement in my hotel room, a friend’s invitation to volunteer for Bayanihan Mission (BM), an NGO, was a blessing. One of our key projects in Cebu is a quarantine support program in Sitio Marna, a slum of approximately 2,100 people. It has been estimated that as many as 80% of Covid-19 cases in Cebu occur in slums.

When the government announced the military-enforced lockdown in March 2020, it put many Marna residents in an impossible situation. Most were daily wage earners, working on the streets. Many don’t qualify for local government support because they are economic migrants from rural provinces who are not registered residents of Cebu City. No work and no savings meant no food. It left self-sufficient people with a horrific dilemma: quarantine and starve, or earn money on the street and face detention.

Sitio Marna is a segregated, marginalised community where cramped living conditions make social distancing impractical. When Bayanihan Mission first visited, on April 5 last year, we were swarmed by 600 or more hungry, fearful people. Our 200 food packs were gone in minutes. Parents, sometimes with 10 or more children, had no food nor hope of food coming. The sense of panic was difficult to witness.

The following day, I met with Marna’s 6 purok (neighborhood) leaders and we agreed that Bayanihan Mission would offer to guarantee food security for the entire population until lockdown ended, but only if every single family signed a written pledge to maintain 100% home quarantine in support of their entire community. The programme would require a unified, sustained community effort. We recruited 18 young volunteers from within the community to pack and deliver the food to every resident’s door twice a week. We also recruited 12 health programme volunteers who took the temperature and monitored for Covid-19 symptoms of all 2,100 residents every day.

Our first food deliveries began at the end of that week. The resident volunteers repacked and delivered 1000kg of rice, 1000kg of squash, and 500kg of mung beans to the front door of every family in need while also monitoring everyone for symptoms.

Marna usually is a hive of noise and activity; gangs of children playing, people washing themselves in the narrow alleys and doing laundry, cocks crowing, dogs barking, people singing karaoke. But an eerie silence descended when the BM pledge programme began. With up to 50% of Marna’s residents being under 12 years old, not even a toddler’s cry could be heard. The alleys emptied, except for the PPE-clad volunteers quietly moving from door to door twice a week with food packs.

As the weeks turned into months, I began to wonder at the silent endurance of these people, wintering out Covid-19 in crowded 30°C rooms without a fan, subsisting for a week on around 80 pesos-worth (€1.25) of food. For a family of four, hunger prevented for the price of a pint?

One might expect to meet despondent, exhausted people every day. Yet a heartfelt smile and humble gratitude was the norm at every door. Exuberant bunches of children were thrilled to have their monotony broken, and temperature taken, by a visitor. Their innocence in not realising their own suffering was revealing.

The programme was one year old last week. Sitio Marna is still the only slum area in Cebu which has prevented Covid-19 contagion. It is a remarkable testament to the perseverance, community spirit, and diligence of Marna’s residents and volunteers.

In the last month, the Philippines has seen a 640% rise in confirmed, active Covid-19 cases. There are now more than 10,000 confirmed daily cases being recorded, more than doubling the previous peak seen in August of 2019.

This number, however, belies the true severity of the situation. Just 45,000 tests are being conducted per day, nationwide. The 7-day average positivity rate as of April 24 is 19.4%. In a population of 108 million, the implications of a 19.4% positivity rate are staggering. SusMarioSep (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) is lovely portmanteau heard regularly in these parts.

Up until March of this year, the country had done remarkably well in battling transmission. Filipinos are committed to the collective effort. Masks and face shields are not even a debate for people outside their homes. Being archipelagic (the Philippines comprises over 7,000 islands) has also helped contain transmission. The government simply shut down all inter-island travel.

Towards the end of last year, the government decided that the economic impact of lockdown was causing more suffering than if lockdown was ended and people returned to work. That hypothesis is now about to be tested. Lockdown ended. Inter-island travel has resumed. Last month, President Duterte returned Manila Metro area (pop. 20 million) to full Emergency Community Quarantine in an effort to contain the record current surge.

Compounding the dire situation is the slow rate of vaccine rollout here. As of April 25, a mere 0.2% of the nation’s 108 million people have been fully vaccinated compared to Ireland’s 8.2% and USA’s 28.22%. Like many other poorer nations, the Philippines is facing a massive vaccine-supply crisis.

In a recent report, global think tank Capital Economics said: “The country’s slow vaccination rollout will further hold back the recovery. By the end of the year, we think GDP will still be 12% below its pre-crisis trend, which is the biggest gap of any country in the region.” The reality is that the pandemic will disproportionately impact poorer nations’ efforts to return to economic growth.

Covid-19 reminds us how connected we are, not only with families and friends, but with our neighbours, our towns, nations, and even continents. Covid variants from South Africa, UK, and Brazil being found on sparsely populated islands here.

The Philippines is a poor country. Tragically, unlike many wealthier nations, there is still no light at the end of the tunnel. These gentle, joyful people are likely facing their darkest pandemic days ahead.

Gavan Kennedy is a past pupil of Tubberclair NS, St Aloysius College and Ballymahon Convent. He is currently the Programme Director of Bayanihan Mission in Cebu. For more on his film project go to www.finneganwakes.com

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