Containing and surviving the Covid-19 pandemic reminds us that governance is care work. The task is fairly straightforward: care for the people who are infected and those at risk of infection; care for the carers; and, care for the structurally disenfranchised and those on the cusp of poverty, including daily wage earners, gig economy workers, and micro- and small enterprise owners. Care must also be provided even to those who are relatively economically secure; the people’s vulnerabilities are not limited to public health, or social and economic welfare, our emotional and psychological well-being have been compromised by the uncertainty this pandemic has created and the economy that it has brought to a grinding halt.

Care work refers to the labour that facilitates the well-being of people. This implies a relationship of dependence between the cared-for and their carer, often viewed as acts of altruism or love of the latter, involving some expenditure of energy or emotions, and cash transfers, (Folbre, 2014) and seen as emanating from a woman’s being (Williams, 2001). This also refers to social reproduction, or the creation and maintenance of bonds and relationships that make social cooperation in our communities and societies possible (Fraser, 2016).

As its first systemic response to the Covid-19 pandemic – citing the need for quarantine to “protect the people” – Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte on March 12 ordered a “community quarantine” (essentially a soft lockdown) of the entire Metro Manila region (16 cities and one municipality; population: 13 million) from March 15 to April 14. Confusion and mad scramble ensued due to unclear rules and the suspension of all forms of transport to and from the region. Due to problems in its initial implementation, an “enhanced community quarantine” (ECQ) was announced, which was practically a stricter lockdown of the entire Luzon island (population: 63 million). Ten days after the Lockdown was enforced, Duterte asked the legislature for emergency powers that would allow him to freely reallocate the national budget from discontinued government projects to spend on social safety nets and support for public health frontline services, among others. The law – Republic Act 11469 or the “Bayanihan To Heal As One” Act — included provisions for cash grants to health workers, and cash aid to 18 million low-income households. While all these social amelioration provisions were commendable on paper, digital rights groups were quick to raise the alarm over a surreptitiously-added provision on penalizing individuals “creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the Covid-19 crisis on social media and other platforms…” (Section 6(f) of RA 11469: https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/downloads/2020/03mar/20200324-RA-11469-RRD.pdf). The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUP), among others, pointed out that this inserted provision threatens freedom of expression and of the press, and argued that it “seeks to punish people for an offense that, legally, does not even exist.” To critics, this provision yet again highlights the bias to instil control and order even as the urgent grant of emergency powers was premised on tackling a widespread demand for care.

As the Luzon lockdown approached the end of its fourth week, public criticism mainly via online platforms have heightened, demanding for a clear and transparent discussion of any national strategy to address the public health and social aspects of Covid-19 crisis. Many also wished for a detailed accounting of the much-touted PHP 300 billion (USD 5.9 billion) package for a social amelioration program (SAP) the president had promised to poor families whose work and subsistence are affected by the ECQ. Such criticisms come from a heightened sense of insecurity about income and food provisions as the ECQ entered its first month, and has been extended until end of April. While details of the funding and distribution of the SAP remained opaque, what was made clear by a Philippine National Police report is that, by April 1, over 17,000 people have been arrested across the country for ECQ-related offenses (“curfew violations or disobedience”).

In an unprecedented national emergency like Covid-19, governments often mistake “law and order” solutions as real responses to the problem. While ECQ goals were commendable from a public health/ epidemiological standpoint, the demand for care was also clear: how does government design measures to catch people who are left with no work, no income, and no choice but to depend on local or national government support for their basic needs, even as they strain to abide by the shared objective of the quarantine. Left on their own, the poor and the near-poor struggle with the only two fatal choices they seem to be offered: imminent hunger or the virus. As families waited for answers in midnight broadcasts of pre-recorded presidential talk, all they got were hollow assurances that help is on the way, and that they should “endure the long delays.” Three weeks after the grant of emergency powers, the promised mass testing remained low and slow, the distribution of critical personal protective equipment (PPEs) to medical frontlines seems to be jammed at 7% of the promised supply, the cash grant for 18 million families is stuck at 24% of target, and the Labor ministry has stopped accepting applications for workers’ cash aid due to lack of cash. As these nationally-funded programs get delayed, local governments fend for themselves, devising ways to care for their own constituents. Some localities have seen minor explosions of hunger and discontent that threatened the fragile peace of quarantine – yet this small group of community protesters (that include mothers and grandmothers) were given severe warnings, not food. The root cause: the absence of care.

On paper, the quick passage of the Bayanihan Act has been justified as an attempt of a ‘caring government’ to promptly respond to the basic needs of the vulnerable sectors of society. In its operation, delays have rendered its promise falling short in offering security, comfort, or care to the very groups it has targeted.

The pandemic betrays the country’s weak social protection institutions. This weakness is not due to the present administration alone, and is certainly not unique to the Philippines. This is symptomatic of a global crisis of care due to patriarchal capitalism (Folbre, 2014; Fraser, 2016). As governments shirk from care work, the private sector makes profit from guaranteeing risk, and the exclusive distribution of services to those who can afford it. Worse still, women are expected to perform a disproportionate share of the reproductive work for their families and communities, and this includes the manual and emotional labour required to run a household and raise children (Williams, 2001), as well as the labour required to maintain social connections and relations at the level of neighbourhoods, communities, and other spaces and iterations of the commons (Fraser, 2016). The crisis of care has left millions of Filipino women over-burdened and their families vulnerable, even before the pandemic. The health crisis threatens the lives of healthcare workers, which in the Philippines comprise of about 72% women. If the virus’ relentless spread is not tapered, many homes are likely to be left with a sole breadwinner – most probably, a woman. What Covid-19 succeeded in doing is to make us realise that, regardless of privilege or lack thereof, we are all at risk of requiring care and support from others. The pandemic also makes us realise that we need a government that prioritises care work for its constituents.

Everyone has sprung to action. Local governments have shored up public health capacity and distributed care packages for their constituents. In a show of social power and solidarity, individuals and private organisations have combined talent and resources to meet the population’s needs, from PPEs and related material support for health facilities, to food and support for the basic and psychosocial needs of the frontliners and other vulnerable sectors. There continues to be an outpouring not just of donations, but also of gratitude.

The efforts have been massive, but not all have been provided relief. This is where the reach and resources of government institutions is critical. And for a government that has been given sufficient fiscal powers to stem an unseen killer and to swiftly weave a sturdy net to catch those who might fall in this long waiting game, the most urgent task is to break the spread of helplessness on the streets.

Global reports have linked the Covid-19 pandemic to the growth-driven economic paradigms and the social behaviours they created. Combined with the climate crisis, the Philippines and the world is facing a new normal of frightening levels of risks to individual and community well-being. People and communities have responded with unprecedented efforts to care for one another. But we need more than that. Leaders in the Philippines and elsewhere must take decisive action to show that social amelioration and care are not uplifting words on paper but concrete observable steps that impact real lives. ֍

References:

Folbre, N. (2014). Who cares? A feminist critique of the care economy. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.
Fraser, N. (2016). Capitalism’s crisis of care. (S. Leonard, interviewer). Dissent Magazine (Fall 2016), retrieved from http://www.dissentmagazine.org
Williams, J. (2001). From difference to dominance to domesticity: care as work, gender as tradition.(Symposium on the Structures of Care Work). Chicago-Kent Law Review, 76(3).

Photos courtesy of:

https://www.unicef.org/philippines/press-releases/2-million-filipino-children-may-miss-out-vaccinations-2020-amidst-covid-19
https://www.rappler.com/move-ph/ispeak/93101-challenges-maternal-health-ph