How Coronavirus Hits the Poorest Among Us — Reflections on Covid from the Philippines

With each passing day, the coronavirus outbreak is exposing the widening gap between rich and poor. In many cities and countries around the world, governments have asked — and sometimes forced — residents to stay at home. But staying at home is proving to be a luxury reserved for the upper and middle classes, with many low income workers unable to continue receiving earnings without agreeing to travel for their work. Many are forced to make a somber and serious choice — risk their health to earn an income or risk their income to protect their health and the health of those they love.

When I received the note below from a friend in the Philippines, I was reminded that the challenges and inequalities we face here in the United States are echoed around the world. It is a reminder to all of us that the impact of the outbreak on our communities and economies will be long lasting, well beyond the time when the virus itself is under control.

On March 12, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced a lockdown of the entire Metro Manila area. There were only 52 confirmed cases in the country but local transmission of Covid-19 had been detected — the lockdown was an attempt to keep those numbers low.

The first few weeks of lockdown were difficult, especially for working class people and for those of us who are poor. For the average Filipino, it may be easy to abide by the safety measures and to work from home. But for poor Filipinos in urban centers or in rural communities, it can be very difficult. Many cannot do their work from home and so are forced to give up their jobs in order to abide by the strict lockdown measures.

In the Philippines, as in many other places, Covid-19 is hitting the poorest the hardest and exposing gaping inequalities in access to food and shelter. Instead of preventing deaths in the Philippines, the measures introduced by the government may indirectly increase the mortality rate as more people lose their income and are no longer able to afford or access food to eat.

If you can work from home and have access to a car or a driver who can take you to the stores to pick up food, you can survive in the Philippines during this pandemic. But the poorest of the poor have none of these means. With public transportation shut down in many parts, they have no way of reaching the stores that provide the food and a limited supply of money to stock up if they do find a way to get there.

Worse yet, many of the most impoverished communities lack access to clean water and sanitation, which makes the chances of acquiring the infection and spreading it to others even greater. These neighborhoods are also overcrowded, with too many people packed into single rooms and too many of these rooms packed too closely together. These poor people don’t have the luxury of avoiding crowds, their homes are where it is crowded.

Today, I don’t see any clear path or policy that will help us meet the challenges that the enhanced quarantine lockdown is creating. Thankfully there is a patchwork of support provided by religious organizations, civic groups, and some nonprofit organizations who are trying to help the government. But it is not enough.

Yes, Filipinos are used to natural disasters, but this global pandemic is something we have not seen in our lifetimes. Many Filipinos will go hungry, many are going hungry already. I fear that mass chaos will soon follow. The only way to counter this disease is to create a society in which all have access to decent jobs, clean water, proper shelter, and accessible health care.

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