Rural work goes on for farmers, food producers amid COVID-19 pandemic

It has been a week since President Rodrigo Roa Duterte placed the entire Luzon under Enhanced Community Quarantine in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic with more than 300 confirmed cases across the Philippines, that has led to 18 deaths as of March 21, 2020.

For farmers of Barangay San Isidro in San Jose Del Monte City in Bulacan, life goes on, with the hope that their immune systems are strong enough to withstand the virus and that they soon get promised assistance from the government.

No ‘work from home’ in farms

Under the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) or total lockdown across Luzon, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) imposed a “24-hour curfew” all over Luzon, and advised social distancing and personal hygiene. During the month-long quarantine, only those allowed to go out and work are health and emergency frontline workers. Vital and critical services and industries will remain in operation, with skeletal workforces. Employers were advised to device work-from-home arrangements for their workforce. Those who are under “no work, no pay” employment as well as those in the informal sector like public utility drivers, ambulant vendors, have their livelihood and income at stake because of the lockdown and suspension of public transportation.

The provincial government of Bulacan have stepped up quarantine efforts to prevent the contagion as there are six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Bulacan — two from San Jose del Monte, one in Malolos, one in Guiguinto, one in Baliwag, while the patient from San Ildefonso, already died in a hospital in Manila. The Bulacan Provincial Health Office said 87 individuals were categorized as patients under investigation or PUIs.

Despite this gloomy situation, it is impossible for farmers to work-from-home. They also couldn’t stay curled up inside their houses for a month during the quarantine period because they have to continue tilling and tending to their farms and livestock so they could harvest and sell their produce. Farming is their only source of income. Their daily life and work entails them to be at the farm to grow food crops — rice, corn, vegetables, root crops, and fruits which they sell in markets in Bulacan and Quezon City.  They also realize that unhampered and continuous food supply for the population must be ensured especially at this time of calamity and public health emergency.

The stoppage of mass public transport and numerous checkpoints at the borders of Bulacan and Metro Manila made it harder for farmers to transport their crops to markets. “Kapag hindi namin mabenta itong mga kalakal namin, wala rin kaming pambili ng bigas at iba pang kailangan. Wala kaming ipambabayad sa tubig at kuryente. Bawal daw lumabas pero kailangan. Sinong mag-iintindi sa mga sakahan namin kung hindi kami lalabas ng bahay?” (We need to sell our harvest so we can have money to buy rice and other needs. We need money to pay for water and electric bills. They say we must stay at home but we need to go to our farms), says Gemma Sala of the Samahang Sandigang Magsasaka-Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Bulacan who also lamented that they have not yet received any assistance from the barangay and city government of San Jose Del Monte. “Dagdag pa sa bibilhin namin ang rubbing alcohol na napakamahal ngayon ng presyo, nasa Php250 ang dalawang bote.” (We still need to buy rubbing alcohol which became overpriced at Ph250 for every two bottles.)

Gemma and her neighbors harvested bundles of camote tops, snow cabbage or pechay and other vegetables which they sold to the Redemptorist Church in Baclaran. Under normal circumstances, Gemma’s family earns approximately Php213 (USD4.26) per day from selling their produce. Their income and livelihood will surely be affected by the lockdown. 

Support to free mass testing demands

“The national government’s overly delayed and lacking response to COVID-19 contributed to the community transmission and public panic,” says KMP chairperson Danilo Ramos. As early as January, KMP has called for a general, unified and comprehensive government approach to COVID-19.

“A strict lockdown akin to Martial Law, without the much-needed holistic health, socio-economic, and humanitarian actions would be ineffective in stopping the community transmission of the coronavirus,” the peasant leader said.  

KMP strongly supports the broad public clamor for an immediate and free mass testing. “Even the World Health Organization (WHO) advises countries with COVID-19 cases to test, test, and test. Out of more than a hundred million Filipinos, and thousands of vulnerable individuals and hundreds of PUIs, the DOH only managed to test over a thousand people, some of them politicians and their family members who are even asymptomatic.”

“It is imperative that the government pool all available resources to fund free mass testing, the setting up of public health laboratories to perform swift polymerase chain reaction (PCR) detection of COVID-19 positive cases, and the treatment of COVID-19 patients. We have available public funds that can be realigned for a comprehensive COVID-19 response. Congress can also approve a Supplemental Budget for COVID-19. President Rodrigo Duterte may also order the utilization of some Php450-billion unused budget appropriated in the 2019 General Appropriations Act,” Ramos said. “Marami at malaki pa ang pondo ng gobyerno. Kailangan lang ng political will para gamitin sa tama ngayong panahon ng pandemya,” (There’s a hefty public fund. The government must have the political will to use it wisely at this time of pandemic), he added. 

KMP insisted that those who need to be tested immediately are PUIs, medical and health workers who are in the frontlines and caring for patients, and the most vulnerable populations — the elderly and sickly in communities with confirmed COVID-19 cases. “If the DOH would only insist on testing patients with severe symptoms and medical comorbidities, then it might be too late to save them.”

Aside from free mass testing and setting up of PCR laboratories that can process test results, KMP said there is also a need to capacitate public hospitals in treating COVID-19 patients. “Even if they get sick, poor patients cannot go to private hospitals. They cannot afford the cost of hospitalization and treatment of COVID-19.”  ###

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