Coronavirus

For Many Filipinos, Social Distancing is Not an Option

"Yes, we are afraid of the virus, but I think hunger and insanity will kill us first before we die from the virus."

by Alecs Ongcal
24 March 2020, 8:32am

Congested housing in the Rockefeller compound makes it impossible to enforce social distancing. Photo taken on March 19, 2020. All photos by the writer. 

Over a week has passed since the Philippine government placed Metro Manila on lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19. Now, the country's largest island, Luzon, is also on strict community quarantine, suspending school, work, and public transport. While social distancing is key in controlling the situation, many Filipinos now fear death — not from infection, but from hunger and anxiety.

Normita Borigas, 49, and her neighbours in Rockefeller Street, Makati City, are usually gathered outside their five-storey informal compound.

“It’s impossible for us to stay indoors, it’s too cramped. It’s better out here, where the air circulates,” the mother of 12 told VICE.

Borigas lives in a small compound of informal settlers. Unlike the swanky New York icon it was named after, the area is a picture of poverty. A tiny room is a home for a family of six, making it impossible to practise social distancing. It’s the same for others living in the compound made up of 110 families with an average of eight members each.

Filipinos-Struggling-with-Coronavirus-Lockdown
Normita Borigas lives with her husband and six children in their closet-sized house in Makati City, on March 18, 2020.

Living across from her is Jocelyn Cases, a single mom of two who owns a corner store. The 43-year-old thinks the lockdown is good because the neighbourhood is peaceful and it keeps her children inside. But she despises the paranoia the pandemic has brought.

“It's difficult to get supplies from the market, there are no jeepneys, and I can’t carry all the supplies. I had to borrow my nephew’s e-bike to go around,” Cases said.

Filipinos-Struggling-with-Coronavirus-Lockdown
Jocelyn Cases inside her store on March 20, 2020.

Many have also lost their income.

Borigas’ husband, a construction worker, is now out of work because companies stopped operations. Nobody is hiring.

Informal workers make up about 38 percent of the Philippines’ workforce. Many of them rely on daily earnings to survive, so the coronavirus lockdown is a matter of life and death.

Filipinos-Struggling-with-Coronavirus-Lockdown
Roland Domingo walks in a tight walkway inside the compound to his home on March 20, 2020.

Roland Domingo, a 43-year-old pedicab driver, parks his vehicle outside the Rockefeller compound.

Prior to the lockdown, he was earning PHP300 ($6) a day, and used about PHP200 ($4) for daily expenses. But now, since public transport is suspended, he has zero earnings.

“My savings can only hold up for a week. I hope the groceries from the government are delivered. If not, we’ll have nothing to eat," he said.

Jeffrey Bondad, 25, is more fortunate. As an inventory specialist in a bar, he received his salary right before the company closed for the lockdown. Still, he knows that it won’t last long.

“When this money is all spent, we will have to rely on the goods the government promised us," he said.

"But if that doesn't come, we will definitely protest. We can't leave the house. We have no income and no food. What do they expect? We will protest."

1585034085409-Filipinos-Struggling-with-Coronavirus-Lockdown
Jeffrey Bondad lives with four other roommates in the tight five-storey compound in Makati City, on March 19, 2020.

Outside the compound and into the streets, hundreds of homeless and stranded people took refuge at the Baywalk along Manila Bay on March 17. The next day, the Manila city government swept the area of bystanders and street vendors, with the promise to provide proper temporary shelter during the community quarantine.

Filipinos-Struggling-with-Coronavirus-Lockdown
People sleeping along Manila Bay on March 17, 2020.

Sitting by the bay while everyone else was asleep, 49-year-old Ronaldo Carbonilla contemplated his situation.

Filipinos-Struggling-with-Coronavirus-Lockdown
Rolando Carbonilla plans to cross city borders by foot when the sun rises to be with his parents, on March 17, 2020.

He was looking for a job when the lockdown started and is now stuck in Manila after the government prohibited people from leaving and entering cities. Carbonilla can't go home to his parents in Quezon City because his official residential address is in Manila. He does not have a house in Manila, so sleeping near the bay was his only option.

“Some people gave me food earlier. I've been saving it because I don't know when I'll get food next. They're telling us to get out of here, but they don't let us go home," Carbonilla said.

"Where should we be? Where do we go? We have no work and no money."

Asked if he was afraid of catching the coronavirus, Carbonilla echoed the sentiments of many.

“Afraid? Yes, we are afraid of the virus, but I think hunger and insanity will kill us first before we die from the virus."

Find Alecs on Instagram.