Covid-19, community resilience and remittances in the Philippines

May 16, 2022

Dr. Yvonne Su

Sivakamy Thayaalan

Fruit sellers in the market, Manila

The coronavirus pandemic has had dire effects on marginalised communities across the Global South. Living in resource-constrained countries that lack social safety nets, poor communities have faced large-scale poverty and starvation stemming from lockdown measures. This raises the question of how marginalised communities have been able to survive during the pandemic.

Despite having one of the world’s ‘longest and strictest’ lockdowns, the Philippines has been one of the countries in Southeast Asia worst affected by Covid-19. A major factor in the spread of the virus has been poor management by the government, including President Rodrigo Duterte’s initial dismissiveness of the seriousness of the crisis, and the slow implementation of travel bans and lockdowns. The government has blamed poor communities for spreading the virus by labelling them as criminals or pasaway (‘undisciplined citizens’) and targeting them with violent punishment for ‘violating’ quarantine measures. The urban poor largely work outside of the home in the informal sector and do not have proof of employment, often making them the targets of arrest during lockdown, when they were not supposed to be working.

Collective action and remittances: two lifelines during crisis?

The Philippines is known for the resilience of its people through the Filipino principle of collective action, bayanihan. Indeed, in his final State of the Nation Address in July 2021, Duterte encouraged Filipinos to use the spirit of bayanihan to stop the spread of Covid-19, noting ‘The spirit of bayanihan and the value of malasakit (compassion) are now indelible in us Filipinos. We shall use these gifts to forge ahead towards a better normal’. Seen as another kind of ‘gift’, remittances are also a lifeline for Filipinos in times of disaster. But how far do community resilience and remittances go during a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic? Looking at a study completed in June 2021 on the effects of Covid-19 on 357 residents living in resettlement sites in Tacloban City built for survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, we examine the role community support and remittances have played in helping people get through the pandemic. We find that, apart from close family members, resettlement site residents have largely not relied on others for support – busting both the bayanihan and remittance myths.

Demonstrating bayanihan during the pandemic

For under-supported and marginalised communities, the importance of collective action and mutual aid during times of disaster cannot be underestimated. Communities understand their own needs best, and civil society networks are able to provide effective responses at a time when state institutions are often overwhelmed. In the Philippines, however, many researchers have criticised the way media and government officials have romanticised concepts like bayanihan and the resilience of the Filipino people during disasters.

For instance, former presidential spokesperson Harry Roque called the emergence of community pantries – created as a result of growing food insecurity across the country – ‘laudable’, emphasising how they ‘exemplif[y] the Filipino bayanihan spirit during this challenging time of Covid-19’. Such discourse is often used to mask the fact that people come together to set up community pantries or provide alternative transport solutions because the government has neglected their needs. The hypocrisy of politicians praising acts of mutual aid was especially apparent as locals running community pantries faced intimidation and scrutiny from local police and national anti-communist task forces, accusing them of having links to communist groups.

Researchers like Greg Bankoff and Karl Hapal also suggest that the government uses local or indigenous terminology and customs to justify its authoritarian moves to the public, a tactic that predates the pandemic. Just as with the use of the term pasaway to criminalise the urban poor, attempts to shift the meaning of local terminology for political gain can be seen in the naming of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. This law was implemented at the beginning of the pandemic, allowing President Duterte to invest himself with special powers, including the unprecedented authority to intervene directly in the running of civil society groups in order to fight Covid-19. The use of bayanihan here clearly goes against the ‘collective cooperation’ definition of the term, and instead implies that society must come together in support of the state to get through the pandemic.

However, what the study found in the resettlement sites in Tacloban City was no collective cooperation, or real cooperation of any type as the majority of participants shared that they got through the pandemic on their own or with the help of close family. In addition, the majority of participants, approximately 61%, said that they believe people at the sites prioritised the welfare of their own families over that of others.

In addition, when asked to select the groups they felt could protect them from Covid-19, 38% of the 760 responses (participants were able to select multiple answers to this question) chose themselves and 25% ‘close family’. Only 2.6% and 2.5% selected ‘friends’ and ‘neighbours’, respectively. Similarly, when asked who they could rely on for financial assistance during the pandemic, out of 423 responses, the majority selected ‘close family’ (45%) or ‘nobody’ (24%). More respondents (8.3%) said they would rely on money-lenders for financial assistance than on ‘friends’ (4.5%) or ‘neighbours’ (2.1%).

Only nine participants said that one of the most salient lessons from their experiences with Typhoon Haiyan was the importance of establishing a strong relationship with their community. One participant remarked on the need for ‘unity and cooperation’ and to ‘[not] be selfish and help each other’. One participant said, ‘My attitude changed, I learned how to make friends and neighbours, unlike in our old community’. Thus, despite the romanticisation of bayanihan during Typhoon Haiyan and Duterte’s urging of Filipinos to use ‘gifts’ of bayanihan, the majority of participants did not experience or use bayanihan more than they had done before the pandemic.

The importance of remittances during the pandemic

The Philippines is one of the largest recipients of remittances, ranking fourth in the world in 2020 with $35 billion. In general, emigration has become a popular strategy for many households to increase income, diversify livelihoods and lower vulnerability to shocks. An increasing number of researchers also suggest that remittances are an important part of post-disaster recovery in developing countries. As the global economy faltered due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there were fears that remittances to the Philippines would significantly drop; however, this seems to have not been the case. In Canada, for example, CA$1.08 billion was sent to the Philippines between January and October 2019, and CA$1.079 billion was sent during the same period in 2020.

For resettlement site residents, however, remittances are not a reliable source of financial assistance. Only 30 respondents indicated that they received remittances from family and social networks abroad, with only three receiving remittances weekly and 18 receiving them only for emergencies and special events. Only two participants said they received the same amount of remittances at the same frequency as before the pandemic, while others received a smaller amount of remittances or received them less frequently.

Busting the myths of community resilience and remittances

What explains the discrepancy between these findings and the resilience of remittances on a national level? Research looking at factors affecting remittance-receiving by Typhoon Haiyan survivors has suggested that there are several factors that affect a household’s ability to turn their connections with migrants into remittances after disasters. These include a household’s socioeconomic class; migrants from lower-income households often end up in unskilled jobs in the Middle East or Asia, which means they have less or no money to send home as remittances. In contrast, migrants from middle- or high-income households often have the educational, economic and social capital required to get high-skilled jobs in the United States or Europe, and have more funds to send home. Considering that most residents surveyed in the resettlement sites come from lower-income households, with 85.7% having an average monthly income below PHP 15,000 ($300), most did not have access to regular remittances. Access to remittances is also complicated during the pandemic because remittance-sending migrants have also had their livelihoods affected by restrictions and lockdowns. One participant noted that ‘the amount of the money sent is still the same but it became less frequent because my relative cannot go out freely because of lockdowns’.  There are also regional differences in remittance-sending – in 2020, only 2.3% of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) came from Eastern Visayas, where Tacloban City is located.

With regard to community resilience among resettlement site residents during the pandemic, the findings of this study are in line with research showing that Filipinos tend to not move beyond family for mutual assistance, and that, in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, while instances of bayanihan among survivors existed, they were often brief experiences.

Of course, as noted earlier, residents have connections with community members that they can rely on during tough times. However, a global pandemic has necessitated isolating from one another to prevent the spread of infection, making it extremely difficult for people to come together to practice bayanihan, as opposed to during the aftermath of natural disasters. With only 59% of the population fully vaccinated (compared to, for example, 82% in Canada), due to vaccine inequity, missteps by the national government in the administration of the vaccine programme and vaccine hesitancy, it remains as important as ever for people to maintain social distancing.

Ultimately, one of the main takeaways from the findings presented here is that remittances and local community efforts are not sustainable forms of support for low-income communities in the long term. They cannot replace access to health care, clean water and enough money to feed one’s family – all concerns brought up by Haiyan survivors.

Where do we go from here?

Although the country has started to loosen restrictions, allowing more people to work without fear of arrest, the pandemic is still ongoing. Considering that low-income communities have little support outside of their own families to meet their daily needs, the government should start by expanding social safety nets including increased financial assistance. To ensure that this support meets the needs of those struggling the most, the government should include communities such as Haiyan survivors in decision-making concerning the pandemic response. The government’s attempt at providing emergency financial support to low-income households during the pandemic through the two-month Social Amelioration Program makes this clear – distribution of aid was extremely slow and the amount given was insufficient to cover the living expenses of low-income households. The government should also work with pre-existing community groups and networks in Tacloban City in order to build on their expertise and to help distribute aid to communities. Millions of Filipinos have been pushed into poverty over the course of the pandemic, and the government must act fast to ensure this number does not rise in 2022.

Dr. Yvonne Su is an assistant professor in the Department of Equity Studies at York University, Toronto. She is an expert on post-disaster recovery, forced migration and poverty and inequality.

Sivakamy Thayaalan is a research assistant at York University. She holds a Master’s in political science from the University of Western Ontario.


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