COVID-19 and the Poverty Pandemic

Preventing transmission of the COVID-19 disease requires that we consistently exercise proper health and hygiene protocols, both in our homes and in public spaces. Authorities have also advised that we all steer clear of large gatherings, avoid using public transportation, follow “community quarantine” measures, and seek prompt medical attention when there is exposure to the disease. While all these are sound reminders, there is one glaring problem – the poor will not be able to afford to follow these.

Many jobs have no paid sick leaves. Irregular workers, including those who are paid on a per output, takay, or pakyaw basis, are particularly vulnerable. Working from home is not an option for all workers, as in the case of jeepney drivers and service workers. Crowding cannot be avoided in mass transport systems. In crisis situations, poor women and girls are affected the most because many of them form part of this workforce, but are still expected to do unpaid care and domestic work, which only tends to increase when caring for sick members of the family.

Poor people inordinately bear the brunt of economic shocks brought by this pandemic. Many informal, micro-, small-scale, and even up to medium-scale enterprises will take the hit as compared to the larger and more established businesses. Many may have to stop operations or close down because they would not be able to absorb the shocks to the economy. Hoarding of essential goods such as soap, alcohol, and basic food items only raises market prices and creates access barriers. Stocking up on food and medicines is impossible for those without regular incomes, savings, the unbanked, or those without access to financial services.

While it may be true that COVID-19 is not the proximate cause of these underlying problems, what is true is that it threatens the already fragile social safety nets of the Philippines. What pro-poor solutions could be considered to reduce inequalities in the time of COVID-19, particularly in ensuring access to water?

First, local governments could use calamity funds to subsidize water costs for the poorest sectors, particularly informal settler families (ISFs) crowding in the urban centers. Safe water is beyond the reach of poor communities because of access and cost barriers. For example, a recent study made by A Single Drop for Safe Water identified that in Pasig and Manila cities, an average person only has access to 12-13 liters of water per day. This is drastically below what the DILG recommends, which should range between 20-80 liters per person each day. For a minimum of 10 cubic meters, Manila Water and Maynilad charge around Php 88-130 per month, whereas the community pays between Php 500-900 per month to both formal and informal suppliers for less than 3.6 cubic meters. Oftentimes, this water needs to be fetched, and it ultimately puts limits on hygiene practices. The lack of access and the high costs of safe water puts the poorest and most vulnerable at risk since proper hygiene is a challenge.

Second, partnerships with WASH-related private sector companies should be explored. There are companies willing and capable of subsidizing the regular supply of hygiene items for the poorest and most vulnerable, especially older persons, lactating and pregnant women, families with infants and small children. Incorporating a gender perspective into plans and strategies enables response operations to efficiently reach underserved and at-risk individuals. Local governments could also use calamity funds to distribute cash vouchers to low-income families to enable them to buy hygiene items locally.

Finally, it is important to work with poor communities to strengthen communications on hygiene and health promotion. Local governments, community groups, and the private sector can join forces and form a local network that could support poorest families in obtaining accurate and useful information on COVID-19, as well as provide free and immediate testing, quarantine and medical assistance for suspected cases.

Safe water, adequate sanitation, and hygienic conditions are crucial to health and wellbeing, more so in this time of COVID-19. Let us make sure no one gets left behind.