Manila: Even before the coronavirus arrived in Manila, a saying in the capital’s sprawling San Roque slum - “No one dies from a fever” - crystallised the many threats that its residents faced in their daily lives.
Drug-fueled petty crime. Food shortages. Overcrowding and poor sanitation. Fever, body aches and coughs were commonplace long before the virus came.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s lockdown of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island and home to Manila, is moving into its second month, plunging San Roque’s people even deeper into poverty as the virus continues to rage. Yet the restrictions have not stopped children from playing tag in the slum’s labyrinth of alleyways as parents shout halfhearted admonitions to stay away from one another.
Home to roughly 6,000 families - conservatively, about 35,000 people - San Roque, in Manila’s northern suburb of Quezon, has for years been home to some of the poorest people on the fringes of Philippine society.
Many of the men are day labourers who work at construction sites in the ever-expanding metropolis. Others are provincial migrants whose journeys took them to the slum’s squalid shanties, made from dilapidated cardboard and rusting iron sheet roofing.
“Now it is a nightmare for people like us,” said Susana Baldoza, a grandmother of four who has lived nearly half her 59 years in San Roque, subsisting on odd jobs. “Now that there is a lockdown, we can’t go outside to look for jobs, to survive.”
She said she does not doubt that the virus is a killer but believes that many are likelier to die of hunger because government aid has been slow to trickle in. Now neighbours are helping neighbours as the community turns inward to feed its poorest residents.
Rally leads to violence
Frustration over the lockdown recently exploded into violence. An April 1 gathering in San Roque became an impromptu rally, with dozens taking to the streets demanding answers from the government about when they would receive promised relief.
Police officers in riot gear and fatigues responded with force, scuffling with protesters and sending 21 people to jail. Duterte accused Kadamay, a group that advocates for the poor, of inciting the violence and warned that his government would not be lenient toward those who challenged it.
“Now is the time to set an example to everybody,” Duterte said, telling police to “shoot them dead” if they believed protesters were endangering their lives. “I am not used to being challenged. Not me. Let this be a warning to all.”
So far, there have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in San Roque, although Baldoza is almost sure that residents have been infected.
“I pray to God that there won’t be any, but how could there be none?” she said.
As of Thursday, 362 people had died in the Philippines from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and 5,660 infections had been confirmed. But that figure is likely to rise sharply, with the Philippine government having just begun mass testing this week.
Community leaders in San Roque have been tacking up cardboard signs reminding people not to spit. Some people have started wearing face masks, but most don’t. Wearing them in the city’s stifling heat can be suffocating, some said; others said they would rather spend what little money they had on food.
Hard to explain social distancing
Yumi Castillo, a volunteer social worker with Kadamay, said it was hard to explain the concept of social distancing to people who spend their lives crammed into small, makeshift spaces.
Her group had printed out information about the virus for volunteers to distribute. But judging from the many children playing in congested alleyways and streets, the message didn’t seem to be getting through.
“There are practically no health services here. No one teaches them,” Castillo said at a community centre where rice, food, drinking water and rubbing alcohol were sorted and stored.
Baldoza, the grandmother of four, was volunteering as a cook for a community kitchen in San Roque, serving fried herring over rice, courtesy of the Catholic Church and a civic group that has been helping residents weather the crisis.
“People here are very poor, as you can see,” said Baldoza, frying fish outdoors in a wok. “We don’t have money and the luxury of going to the supermarkets. We haven’t received help from the government, no help from the outside, except the donations that they give us. And people can’t work.”
Her neighbour Analyn Mikunog was waiting for the food to be served. Mikunog’s partner has no permanent job, although sometimes he is lucky enough to find work on construction sites. He had just been hired as a day labourer when Duterte imposed the lockdown.
Now the family’s future is bleak. With four young children to feed, the gaunt-looking Mikunog, 28, said she was at her wits’ end trying to figure out how they would survive.
“Sometimes we talk and wonder how long this lockdown will last,” she said. “Will we die hungry?”
Priests in clerical collars and rugged jeans were busily making lunches, but their camaraderie belied the seriousness of the situation. As the meals were being prepared, riot police officers moved in to break up the feeding program. They accused leftist organisations of using it to recruit people to campaign against the government.
The officers, some in black uniforms and others in combat fatigues, carried batons and long firearms. They confiscated signs that read, “Help, Not Jail.” After tense negotiations, a commander, who refused to identify himself, finally relented. But he warned the group to break up after the food was distributed and to practice social distancing.
“We are just serving the people,” said King Garcia, a 39-year-old priest.
“The government has left them in the fringes at a time when they needed help the most,” he said. “If the virus does not kill them, hunger will.”