By Norman P. Aquino
Special Reports Editor
WHAT used to be a bustling street near the Centro Escolar University in Las Piñas City was now bare, except for a cart of sorbetes being pushed by Alex H. Reales, 55.
Mr. Reales, who’s been peddling “dirty” ice cream for 25 years, made P500 ($10) in seven hours just the day before, which wasn’t bad considering that the city and the entire Philippine island of Luzon had been locked down amid a novel coronavirus outbreak.
“I have to keep working, otherwise my family won’t have anything to eat,” he said in an interview in Filipino, his black face mask catching the sweat from his wrinkled face under the hot summer sun.
“Some people may not understand it, but that’s how it works,” Mr. Reales, who supports three children aged 8 to 24 who still live with him, said.
He added that village law enforcers have been lenient even if most people have to stay home under a so-called enhanced community quarantine ordered by President Rodrigo R. Duterte on March 16 to contain the virus. Starting Tuesday, however, he won’t have work anymore because the ice cream factory is closing.
Mr. Duterte said Luzon’s 60 million people should leave the house only to buy food, medicine and other basic items until April 12.
The lockdown — initially limited to Manila, the capital and nearby cities — that not only suspended work but also halted all public transportation was meant to prevent the quick spread of COVID-19, which has sickened more than 300 people, with 19 deaths.
Under quarantine rules, only one family member can go out to buy grocery items.
Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo M. Año advised residents on March 14 — when the lockdown was still limited to Metro Manila — to buy a week’s worth of food.
“This is the time for Filipinos not to be a smart-aleck,” he told a news briefing in Filipino. “We are facing a problem. Lives are at stake.”
The lockdown has exposed the disparity between rich and poor families, and for many low-income earners, it’s just plain impractical, not to mention impossible.
Critics have questioned how some politicians got tested for the virus even if some of them had not shown any symptoms, amid reports that others were being turned down or made to wait by hospitals.
Members of the presidential family got tested, as well as several Cabinet secretaries and lawmakers, most of them later testing negative for the virus including Mr. Duterte.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire has said all the politicians qualified under the agency’s “decision tool,” which allowed testing of people with either exposure or travel history even if they had not shown any symptoms.
They have since changed the criteria by prioritizing people most at risk — those aged 60 and above, with underlying conditions and showing severe symptoms.
The virus has sickened about 308,000 people, killing more than 13,000 worldwide, mostly in China.
Meanwhile, Mr. Duterte said the government would take care of workers’ needs during the lockdown, but didn’t say how. He also asked companies to pay year-end bonuses in advance.
At one point, he ordered military camps to accommodate and feed Filipinos who might need some lodging during the lockdown.
“The existing level of panic and fear would likely be worse without such reassurances however unrealistic they prove to be in the longer run,” said Malcolm Cook, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s senior visiting fellow in Sydney.
“Many leaders and governments are largely trying to catch up with the effects of the virus. The response to this pandemic will be the biggest political test for the leaders of most of the affected countries including Mr. Duterte and the Philippines,” he said in an e-mailed reply to questions.
Almost 25 million jobs and $3.4 trillion in income globally could be lost in the worst-case scenario of a coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
‘NO WORK, NO PAY’
In the Philippines, as many as 60,000 jobs will be lost, ILO said, citing the National Economic and Development Authority.
Call center agent Maricel Ramos (not her real name) hopes she won’t be one of those.
Ms. Ramos, a 32-year-old single parent of six, said her company, Worldsource, Inc. had promised to pay them their salaries until the end of the month.
Employees were also told they could keep working from home but they need to provide for their own laptops, she said.
“Up to now, we haven’t heard from the company about the exact arrangement because there’s a no work, no pay policy,” Ms. Ramos said in an interview. “I feel like I’ve been abandoned by our company. Hopefully I would still have a job to go to once this is over.”
Mr. Duterte has asked local governments to provide food packs to affected families with the help of the Social Welfare department.
The government will also release a P27.1-billion budget to aid affected sectors, with $1 billion more in financing under negotiation, according to the Finance department.
About 250,000 affected workers in small and microenterprises will get P5,000 each in financial aid, the Labor department has said.
In Congress, several lawmakers have filed bills allotting various amounts of stimulus packages, including one worth P108 billion proposed by Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo.
“The poor are suffering and will continue to do so as they cannot afford self-quarantine, often cannot work from home, and work in sectors vulnerable to this virus and its impacts,” Mr. Cook said.
“Minimizing this suffering is key and close coordination between the National Government, local governments, the private sector and the civic sector will be key.”
Mr. Reales, the ice cream vendor, frowns at Mr. Duterte’s offer of support to workers.
“That’s too good to be true,” he said. “It’s not good to put your life in someone’s hands. You need to take care of yourself.”