When COVID-19 shook the world, it brought out the best and the worst of people. In the Philippines, discussions on lockdown started around late January and February of 2020. The government was slow in its intervention, but I guess balancing between the economy and public health was a difficult line to walk. This was also made even more complicated when the task force was headed by non-medical/ public health practitioners. namely the military, whose protocol was to save the wounded and not necessarily prevent the transmission of the virus. It was an all-out war against an unseen enemy, a novel virus.
On the 15th of March, we buried our aunt who died of the complications of her diabetes. That night a total lockdown in Metro Manila was announced. The following day, the whole island of Luzon was put on lockdown. No one was allowed to go out unless they secured a pass to buy necessities and go to the bank. Classes at all levels were suspended for a month. We thought it was only going to last that long. There was chaos and uncertainty.
Cries for help were everywhere. Public transportation drivers, ambulant vendors, and other MSMEs were severely affected. Hospitals were full and people were dying fast. Those who recovered found themselves in deep debt as hospital bills skyrocketed. Almost two weeks into lockdown, help was scarce, if there was any, and children were dying not of COVID-19 but of hunger. At exactly 11 days into lockdown, a friend of mine called me and asked if I was willing to help raise funds.
On 26 March 2020, my friend together with her cousin announced that we were going to raise funds to help the most vulnerable groups. In a few hours we received, 85,000 PhP (1,630 USD), within 24 hours, we had 150,000 PhP (2,800 USD). We knew this would only help a few, but to be able to save a few was better than nothing at all.
My friend and her cousin led the fundraising. My task was to organize beneficiaries and ensure they received their money in a timely manner while following the protocols. Our target groups were the tricycle drivers and ambulant vendors. The decision was strategic. I knew the leaders of the transport group and the ambulant vendors in my hometown. It was easier for me to organize. I suggested giving money and not humanitarian kits to give them agency.
Purchasing power in times of crisis gives a sense of dignity. Giving cash is also easy to account for, since transparency was important to us as much as to our benefactors.
The moment I received the money in my bank account, I secured a pass and went to the bank and withdrew it. I remember driving back home from the bank and feeling the eeriness of empty and quiet streets. Inside the car and outside the church, I sobbed. I was not sure if I cried because we could give help, however little, or because I could not help more people.
I arrived home seeing my dad arranging chairs outside our garage, measuring the distance between them as per protocol. I specifically instructed him that we distribute the help per batch so there wouldn’t be any crowd outside. I requested that tricycle drivers brought their wives along, I wanted to ensure that the women had a say in cash aid. After all, Filipino women are the ones who budget the money for the household. This was appreciated by both drivers and their wives.
In three days, we raised 500,000 PhP (9,600 USD) and managed to give cash aids to 500 drivers and ambulant vendors in three localities. Each of them received 1,000 PhP (19 USD). By the time we liquidated our funds and submitted documents to our benefactors, government aid began coming in tranches. Humanitarian kits were not gender-responsive, unfortunately. My country still needs to learn more about the humanitarian response, I suppose.
Overall, if there is one thing I learned during the pandemic is that emergencies brings out either the best or the worst in people. If we are to survive any crisis, including climate change, we need to be the former. And, of course, use a gender lens in our response.