QUARANTINE DIARIES: COVID-19’s other heroes and other thoughts

BUTUAN CITY (MindaNews / 27 April)I haven’t seen much of the world outside the fence of my rented house in recent weeks. The situation is not likely to change soon. The new map codes of red, orange and green and selective ECQs (Enhanced Community Quarantine) and GCQ (General Community Quarantine) until May 15 come with general prohibition for 0-20s and above 60 from taking the streets. The declared rationale is protection from virus harm.

For the youth of 20 and below, the reason could be because of the latent energy that might be stressful for the state if unleashed. This is an emergency of a new kind. Previous disaster-related emergencies usually called on people to get out and deliver kindness to the affected. Now, the government does not want to be bothered with mass, noise, nuisance and so-called lawlessness.

A hundred meters away down the corner is a village checkpoint. Other than FB photos, that’s my closest view of a frontline. No nurses, no thermo guns, just a couple of volunteers enjoying the duty and the power that comes with it. Other than mixes of zoom, viber, FB messenger and MSTeams chats with family, friends and colleagues, the closest I get to non-virtual humans are the other heroes that maintain the lines of economic recirculation. Some of them have quarantine passes. Others fall in the category of the other “pasaways” – or in other circumstances, some kind of blockade runners. I say “other” because they do not fall under the category of seekers of relief or subsidies. They are ant traders crossing barangay borders to buy and sell whatever they could in order to survive.

Where I am, face-masked fish vendors pass by my street everyday on habal-habal with the usual canned pitch for bariles, panit, tamban, bodloy, dewit, matang-baka and other fishes. One is my alarm clock because he comes before 7 a.m. The other comes in the afternoon to wake me up from extended siestas. I flag one up once or twice a week for a kilo of sardines or tuna tail that lasts three to four meals.

Two face-masked girls, probably of high school age by their voice, come alternately each week. One is a specialist in Fuji apples and the other, oranges. Previously, my suki were two women from 20 kilometer-away Sibagat who carry loads of banana, papaya, pechay, talong, string beans, camote and mango on palanganas perched on their heads. These are itinerant vendors who have closer interaction with consumers because, by circumstance, they could not put down or lift up the heavily-loaded palangana to the top of their heads without the help of the prospective buyer. The two women are gone now because inter-municipal public transport is down and they are probably locked down in their own barangays.

We have seen others even at the onset of lockdowns. When formal markets failed on face masks and alcohols, shadow economy actors filled the gaps and navigated the thin line between illegality and legitimacy. Sellers were warned of regulations against supply and price manipulation and buyers struggled to cross checkpoints to access needed supplies. Behind the lines, they support families of frontline heroes.

These runners do not produce what they sell. They rely on informal lenders to equip them with capital to negotiate supplies with producers or wholesalers and subsequently retail sell to consumers. They make markets accessible to the small and helpless by literally bringing markets to homes. The price mark up is just fair especially when you imagine how much meager they earn relative to operating costs, not to mention effective losses from unsold perishables and risks to their own health.

An International Alert study in 2013 (Out of the Shadows: The Real Economy of Conflict-Affected Mindanao, edited by Franscisco Lara Jr and Steven Schoofs) shows the role of shadow economies in nurturing the Mindanao economy. In a subsequent policy brief in 2014, International Alert reiterated that people choose to transact in the shadow economy when formal markets are absent or poorly functioning. Let’s not talk about the pernicious and lethal ones like illegal drugs and illegal guns. These are shadow economies that should not exist in the first place. There is a far bigger realm of shadow economies that act like anti-bodies when the formal economy is ailing. Some shadow economy actors may be described as persons operating outside the law, in normative terms, but they fulfill licit functions in social terms.

Part of the government’s strategy in the war against COVID-19 is putting the economy on war footing, leaving only the essentials, such as food and medical supplies, to private enterprise while picking up the cudgels in feeding the poor and the new jobless with relief goods and Social Amelioration Program (SAP).

Writing for Foreign Policy (“The corona virus economy will change the world,” March 26, 2020), Nicholar Mulder cites that “when societies shift their economies to a war footing, it doesn’t help them survive a crisis, it alters them forever.”   This is an opinion that casts light on anxieties and existential questions that we originally prepared to ask at the end of April 30 but now postponed to May 15. Will we be shocked or awed? Awed by the promising expansion of capacity of the public health system to control the spread of the virus or to be shocked by the capacity of the state to extend the emergency for something else?

I would like to shine the light on two fears: one, a post-COVID-19 economic recovery that possibly leaves behind the wounds of micro-economic impacts; and, two, an extended COVID-19 regime that alters political and economic institutions. Our fears would have been lessened if we are seeing a COVID-19 health-economic strategy and less on a COVID-19 political and security strategy. The new normal is about being able to recalibrate the way we live but, hopefully, not to completely and involuntarily alter it.

On the first fear, the National Economic Development Authority is getting the numbers in aid of preparing an economic recovery plan. This plan will look at the big picture of large firms and medium enterprises having access to capital, being able to bring back the work force and get back to international supply chains.

Recession paints a different picture at the micro level for families of workers who are demobilized, the already jobless with no regular income and once-better off whose savings are running out and the small producers that are not integrated into mainstream supply chains. It is easy to lose a job and much more difficult to get a new one. The economic recovery plan should not leave behind those who could not get back their jobs and those whose joblessness have worsened. It would benefit the whole economy if the informal sectors also get a share of economic packages.

On the second fear, the President has been candid about the possibility of martial law. The Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police have correspondingly expressed readiness to execute when the order is given. The COVID-19 emergency has shown us what alteration looks like in terms of political decision making and population control.   COVID-19 has made it easy to tilt the balance of power of the three branches of government or justify use of the police and military in control points that are supposed to be designed for containing the spread of the virus. In addition to isolating people in their homes, lockdowns are also apparently effective in denying rebel access to rice, dried fish, cooking oil, salt, sugar, coffee, SIM cards, cell phone loads and remittance shops.

Indeed, the emergency situation is being perceived not only as a strategy to defeat the virus but also an opportunity to defeat insurgents and other enemies of the state. The public health capacity indicators are increasing (which can be gleaned from the lesser number of ECQ areas compared to GCQ areas in the map). But somehow we sense an emerging justification for a new political dispensation that is built on COVID-19 but not necessarily for the virus. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Ed Quitoriano is an independent consultant who specializes in conflict and risks management).