Unmasked: The streets and the pandemic

The surge of the pandemic has worsened the plight of the city’s vulnerable sectors, and for them, the streets have become a continuous battleground. With the restrictions brought by the onslaught of the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID 19), their source of income is bounded within the streets; wherein it poses a threat to their health and safety. And with their knowledge about the virus still in question, their safety is further at risk.

The Local Government Unit (LGU) and other organizations have programs that reach out to street dwellers and provide them with safety, yet these promises remain unheeded as street dwellers still go back to the streets—where their livelihoods and homes are.

Health care inaccessibility
Many identified street dwellers had lost their job and homes when the COVID-19 pandemic sent the Philippines into lockdown. As everyone hurdled back-and-forth, hoarding for protective gear and disinfecting essentials, most people who live in slums along the streets worried more about where they will be going. “Kaingon jud ko ato nga wa gani mi pamalit anang face mask, wa pajud balay,” as Jennifer* shares her firsthand experience during the national mandatory lockdown.

A woman, wearing her face mask, stands near a fast-food chain restaurant while being surrounded by the hustle of the busy street. Photo by James Pabonita

With the help of the LGU’s efforts, all of the identified homeless families and Children in Street Situation (CISS) residing within the city were catered in temporary sheltering homes of different barangays in the locality. Along with the temporary homes, daily needs and facemasks were also being shouldered by the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in coordination with barangay workers who also helped in disseminating health protocols mandated by Inter-agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID). “Gi-ingnan mi mag-face mask dayon mag hugas og kamot, dili mag dikit […] pero usahay malimtan, kay mao raman japon para sa amo, isa raman mi’g uli-an,” street dweller Rob* reiterates.

To them, face masks and face shields are already enough protection from the virus so that they can go out and work again. Parking boy John Hunayon remarks, “Basta kay mag-face mask lang lagi mi oks na kaayo.” With them finding contentment with these gears for safety, their notion of vaccination remains to hang in the balance. 

On health awareness, what this sector also lacks is a deeper understanding regarding health care and vaccination. To Hunayon, their protection relies on the provided assistance given by the government, and since most of them are unable to read—their awareness depends more on explanatory dissemination. Given these circumstances, this sector has continued to lag behind the government’s plan for mass immunization. Center for Global Health Director and School of Medicine Professor Dr. Gina S. Itchon shares that the lacking part of the health care program is the public health component. “Okay ka, okay ko, kasi we are all educated, we read, we listen to news items on TV. But for the ordinary person in the street, wala na sila kasabot unsa na’ng vaccination,” Itchon emphasizes. With this health education concern being pervasive, it also doubles the vulnerability of street dwellers in this time of the pandemic. 

A 16-year-old parking attendant stands by a motor parking area with his makeshift face mask around his neck, ready to be worn whenever a vehicle comes and goes. Photo by James Pabonita

Though all these precautions from health protocols intend to provide us protection, safeguarding from the virus entails a cost that not everyone can afford. As these street dwellers get back on the street, prior knowledge limiting only to health protocols will not overcome the threat of the COVID-19 virus. In this time of health crisis, the inaccessibility to proper health education has left the vulnerable behind in peril. 

Back to the streets
With the COVID-19 restrictions, those who are unfortunate inordinately bear the crippling economic shocks, leaving them still on the rough patch of poverty and of a pandemic all at once. The temporary homes may have protected the homeless from further public exposure. However, the roof over their heads still can’t fix other preceding circumstances that these sectors need to adhere—specifically in terms of income. As Head of CDO Social Welfare and Development (CSWD) After Care Section, Norhidaya Hadji Sarip explains, “So far, for the sector, trabaho talaga ang pangunahing hinahanap nilang pangangailangan ngayon.”

As a result, when the Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ) was lifted, it had given street dwellers like 16-year-old Mac-mac* an option to work again on the streets, relying on public parking spaces for their day-to-day earnings to help their families. “Daghan pa jud ko og igsoon […] kinahanglan manginabuhi jud ko,” Mac-mac expresses. As a parking boy with only a face mask alone as protection from COVID-19, his exposure to the crowds and various interactions with people put him at risk.

The implementation of curfew was also one of the protocols of the LGU in response to the pandemic. To maximize their work time, street dwellers return to their temporary shelter nearly before curfew starts. Even if they are afraid of getting caught, street dwellers are still intent on working on the streets. “Mu-padayon japon ko’g trabaho diri sa dalan […] hangtod sa masumhan sila’g dakop nako,” Hunayon confesses.

Despite the implemented health protocols and programs made for street dwellers, they still go back to the streets to work. Rob shares, “Daghan man jud mi mag-igsuon. Akoang mama tinda-tinda ra pud iyang negosyo ginagmay. Maikog pud ko’g pabuhi so mangita nalang ko’g kwarta kada human nako’g klase.” If there is still a need for them to find a livelihood in order to earn money, government efforts might not be enough to alleviate the needs of street dwellers during this pandemic.

Street dwellers’ lack of trust in government efforts might also play a role on why such programs do not affect the improvement of their situation that much. According to street dweller Alex*, “Gina-hunahuna nalang pud namo nga kinsa man sad mu-[tabang] namo nga lain man sila’g pananaw namo.”

Insufficient efforts
Within the grounds of initiatives, a question hangs quietly in the hushed streets of the city: are the actions being done by the government and several organizations enough to help these people? Although cumulative acts have been established to provide aid to street dwellers, it is still not enough. We may think that the fog of distress has been lifted, but the efforts that are being enacted is nowhere near in sight to support the lives of street dwellers. When the city is basked with the sun’s presence, we still see them around the streets, working to maintain their needs. And with the pandemic hurling around, these street dwellers continue to live in constant danger.

Rob continues to dwell in the bustling city to acquire money to sustain his and his family’s needs. Mac-Mac eyes public restaurants just so he could eat, and in worse cases, he shifts to food scraps found in trash cans. With little proper necessities, their only defense is a face mask, sometimes, none at all. Simply knowing that they are being aided by some organizations is just the tip of the iceberg and it will not suffice. It is masking an underlying problem that needs to be entirely addressed: why do they continue to struggle still? 

Parking assistant Manang Nel leans on a parked motorbike with her mask on—looking out for incoming vehicles to pull up along the parking lanes of Magsaysay Park in Plaza Divisoria. Photo by James Pabonita

Even with the acquisition of government subsidies, street dwellers continue to occupy the streets merely because these grants are inadequate to uphold their living—some have even gone to the ordeal of earning money through working as parking attendants. These grants are rather ineffective because, with the growing prevalence of the virus, the impoverished are still left on their own accord. Those who are held accountable should surge their efforts to safeguard the impoverished community.

The vulnerable sector needs the utmost priority. With little knowledge about health protocols, likely, they are also skeptical about the vaccine. Itchon firmly emphasizes the importance of health awareness among the poverty-stricken, “There should be a public health education now, happening now.” With minimal access to health care, street dwellers must be prioritized in this unprecedented time as they are particularly susceptible to contracting the virus.

In any case, one thing is for certain—no one should live in poverty. For them, every day is a struggle of cautiously venturing through the streets of perils. No one deserves to wake up every day fearing for the danger and harm that lurks within the streets they dwell in—barely protecting themselves and sustaining their livelihood with the littlest money they have. 

***

The strike of the pandemic has clearly exposed the state street dwellers are in. Despite the risks, individuals like Rob, Hunayon, and Mac-Mac continue to dwell where their safety is at risk, yet for them, it is also a place of home.

Consequently, the health crisis has unsheathed the epicenter of the problem—insufficient support from the government. The amount of support street dwellers receive is quite saddening. It does not even live up to the minimum standards for survival and utmost protection. Yes, they are efforts nonetheless; but those who have the power to mitigate the vulnerabilities of these people should regard this predicament as a priority and intensify their actions.C

*Names are changed per request of anonymity

Levina Eunic Palarca

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