The pandemic's forgotten faces: the plight of Muslims, women, and other minorities

To say that the COVID-19 pandemic affects everyone in the country regardless of social standing is not false, but it does not entirely capture the whole picture, either. More to the point, saying that everyone should strictly comply with government rules and sanctions that manage it is insensitive and lacks thoughtful consideration.

Government responses and measures that mitigate the impact of the health crisis have surely created major changes in everyone’s lives. However, they affect people in very different ways—some more intensely and negatively than others. Yes, quarantines that have been adopted nationwide are backed by scientific evidence as helpful in flattening the curve of the pandemic. But these rules favour people with stable incomes and those living in economic centers—more so if they have strong political ties. The poor and marginalized are only further disenfranchised, especially when they are part of a religious minority.

Muslims in urban areas of a predominantly Christian country like the Philippines, for example, know that their religious practices and traditions are usually not considered by the government, and this was no different during the first two weeks of the COVID-19 crisis. An example was when two Muslims who died of COVID-19 were not granted immediate burial in Rizal. Their bodies were instead transported to Bulacan where they were buried two days later, which runs counter to Islamic rules that the dead should be buried within 24 hours. Given these reports, our organization International Alert Philippines, engaged partners in the House of Representatives to lobby with the executive to adjust their guidelines. While the swift action of the DILG to release a memo that urges LGUs to observe religious-sensitive burial processes is commendable, there is still a need to ensure that LGUs indeed strictly implement this directive.

Most household heads in communities like BASECO, Maharlika, and Culiat in Metro Manila and Parang in Maguindanao are tricycle drivers. In the first two weeks of the community quarantine when all intra-city public transportation were suspended, they circumvented the guidelines by removing their sidecars and offering transportation services to residents discreetly. As the guidelines got stricter and curfews were imposed, tricycle drivers continued their services and risked getting caught just so they could feed their families. To add salt to the wound, those who were caught were asked to pay fees that could have been used instead for food and other needs. This predicament rings true for other workers, such as vendors and fisherfolk, who rely solely on daily wages to fend for themselves and their families.

Some communities to this day still have not received their share of relief goods from their local governments. Additionally, in communities where aid has been distributed, it is unclear whether these were one-off supplies or if another round of distribution were underway. Relief goods only last an average-sized family three days. This becomes more problematic in Muslim communities like Culiat, where local officials provided no alternative to canned pork. These items were merely removed from the pack in an effort to be culturally sensitive. Residents in Culiat, in effect, received fewer goods than their non-Muslim neighbors and their counterparts in other barangays.

Sometimes, local officials left the distribution of relief goods to tribal leaders in the community, which reinforces a system favoring the more powerful. Unsurprisingly, only those who have strong ties with tribal leaders received their share of goods, heightening identity-conflict that involve clan ties and ethnic affiliation.

Attempts by the government to address the situation of the poor through the social amelioration fund can become faulty. As funds trickle down from the national government to provincial, municipal, and barangay levels, the possibility for corruption is high, especially if there are no proper transparency and accountability measures in place. While there have been attempts by line agencies to lay out the guidelines to access the funds, neediest people usually cannot access these. Some residents in BASECO have been tricked by con men into purchasing application forms to access the fund. Others have been made to believe that they needed to render services in exchange.

Alert’s youth partners in Maguindanao hear rumors that some LGUs in the province are planning to convert social amelioration funds from the national government—P5,000 to P8,000 per household—into rice or food for distribution instead. Residents speculate that most of the money will be pocketed by corrupt officials if this were the case.

A common problem in remote areas such as Datu Blah Sinsuat in Maguindanao is the lack of access to food supplies, commodities, and medicines—also dangerous in the current flu season. Residents there also do not have access to banks and ATMs because these are located in Cotabato City, where a community quarantine is currently in place. To adjust, people resort to patronizing coping shadow economies such as makeshift ATMs offered by people who have access to online banking. However, they impose added fees and provide no security guarantees.

Political tensions add to the growing problem of COVID-19 measures in Mindanao and vice versa. For instance, the Cotabato City Government led by Mayor Cynthia Guiani allegedly does not allow entry of relief goods from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) due to unresolved contest in political jurisdiction following the inclusion of the city to the new Bangsamoro government in 2019. Likewise, the lockdown in Cotabato City, the economic center of Maguindanao, which at first prohibited the entry of residents from other towns, reportedly almost caused the Municipality of Sultan Kudarat to close the Rebuken water pumping station and cut off half of the City’s water supply. Cotabato City later eased border control to allow non-Cotabato residents to purchase goods and carry out essential activities in the City.

These examples are emblematic of the problem in handling the COVID-19 situation in the country. If not adjusted soon, these could lead to violence and transform coping shadow economies into deadly ones as people get more desperate.

At some level, it is predictable that the privileged and powerful sectors do not feel the gravity of the problems. What is more bothersome is when the poor and the badly affected internalize their situation as a means to cope. Most cannot recognize how the government they so trust and praise in an almost fanatical manner could implement measures that are detrimental to their condition.

All these tell us that there needs to be a comprehensive and conflict-sensitive approach to preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Information on quarantine guidelines should not be limited to presidential pronouncements that are often incomprehensible. These need to be coupled with wider information dissemination on how the government can provide medical assistance in case one is infected with the virus, and how to access government aid even if one is not. In addition, the central State limits the flexibility of local governments to craft ordinances that are specific to their constituents’ context and needs. The State should be strong in creating national policies but at the same time, needs to orchestrate and facilitate coordination and collaboration of local governments. Calibrated easing of quarantine guidelines to allow certain workers, especially those in disadvantaged situations, to function will be needed. Furthermore, government and non-government institutions should think of alternative placements for people who are currently out of a job so that they can cope with their financial losses. Otherwise, they might be involved in common crimes and shadow economies, as what has already been observed in some areas.

This COVID-19 situation is wholly unprecedented, and governments having to learn their way around it to resolve the situation is certainly expected. Nevertheless, these same governments should never forget that they are committed to serving all its peoples and not just a select few. Blanket solutions that neglect the plight of the disenfranchised should never be the go-to.

Plans and programmes to address this pandemic should be evidence-based and sensitive to culture, conflict, and context. This can be done with consultations and engagements especially with people who are most vulnerable to the implications of the crisis brought about by COVID-19, quarantines notwithstanding. Social media can help in this regard. The public surveys of the NEDA and DOLE to assess people’s economic needs during these times is a step in the right direction. However, government must take quick and creative ways to determine and respond to the needs and recommendations of those who have limited access to technology because of economic and geographic reasons. It is through this understanding and inclusive approach that we can overcome and not worsen this crisis.

This Op-Ed was published on Rappler on 14 April 2020. A shorter version was published on the Philippine Daily Inquirer on the same date.