Covid, hunger and the community pantry

There’s nothing we can really do about it – I mean if we’re going to stop community pantries. But why should we even think so? We know there has been hunger for all of these decades, at least the last two when SWS began its quarterly hunger surveys. There weren’t enough people caring about it, so we left it to the government, the churches, the NGOs to deal with a problem that is also ours. The level of hunger that a society may face because it has the food or the resources to feed itself says a lot about the type of society it is.

Ours has been perverse, so religious on the one hand, so stingy on the other. We are Christians and Muslims, two religions with specific exhortations to help the poor, to mercy, to love our neighbor. Our situation of persistent hunger simply measures our hypocrisy. In the case of government, it is more than hypocrisy, it is also a matter of priority and efficiency. The hunger that persists in all situations for decades is simply a societal crime.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, I could justify myself on the lack of resources in our country and on how this shortage translated into minimal intervention against hunger. But I can’t do it anymore. There is simply too much money and food available, but too much hunger at the same time. I don’t have to explain how this anomaly can happen. Once our children study math and we tell them about plenty in the midst of hunger, or hunger in the midst of plenty, they can only provide inequality and no other answer.

The pandemic has revealed the coverage we have put in to cover the hunger problem in the Philippines and the general apathy that perpetuates it. When Bayanihan! was enacted and implemented, the ayuda attempted to cover 80% of Filipino families. Through the eyes of the government, he saw the need to create such a massive fund to address, among other things, Filipino food insecurity. By the number of families whose government has concluded that they would need food assistance, it seemed to me the most honest admission of the state of poverty beyond the economic figures which had tried to show the contrary.

Despite Bayanihan I, the incidences of hunger have increased so much that the private sector has been forced to launch a furious intervention against hunger. There was official silence even when the incidence of hunger soared to 30%, perhaps a sign that the government was, at the time, already overwhelmed. It’s not just healthcare that has been called into question, as evidenced by calls from primary care physicians for a break and additional assistance, as well as a truly disheartening financial and operational mess from PhilHealth. It was also hunger, especially in Metro Manila.

I was happy to see the private sector genuinely concerned and subsequently generous in its response, both in addressing the causes against hunger and in giving hunger a new level of priority attention. In two to three months, the incidence of hunger dropped from 30% to 20% before Bayanihan II was even implemented. It could never have happened in such a short time if there hadn’t been enough resources in the first place. These just weren’t going to help the hungry.

However, when the hunger situation improved, the temporary relief combined with the festive spirit of Christmas. Targeted efforts against hunger eased as the platform for a new wave of Covid was accelerated. People gathered, people relaxed, and people lived as if the pandemic was over. In February, the signs were clear, the Covid was going to make a comeback.

I began to warn of the expected rise in hunger following the rise of the Covid. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that a wave of infections would lead to a stricter quarantine and a hard lockdown will cause people to lose income and be hungry again. Anyone interested in connecting Covid to Hunger can naturally see it without trying. I don’t understand why smarter people commissioned to lead us couldn’t have prepared for the next wave of Covid and the hunger that will come with it.

Of course, our health care system in Metro Manila has caved in and dragged the condition of hospitals in neighboring provinces into the same quagmire. The wave we are in has been worse than last year, proving that we are not learning and our leaders in charge of the pandemic are not leading. One million infections and running, 17,000 deaths and running.

Fortunately, divine intervention stepped in and disrupted the lethargic response, if any, to fight hunger. The Maginhawa Street Community Pantry initiative struck a chord in the Filipino heart and sparked a wildfire of sympathy and action. I quit counting a few days ago when there were already 700 nationally identified and growing community pantries. What is important for me is to continue to empower him, to keep him alive and expanding, and to welcome the variations that he is bound to have. Because we contribute to our own goodness and cultivate it to stay high in our consciousness.

This pandemic will not let us go. They say past pandemics are suddenly gone, and researchers cite herd immunity as one possible reason. Simply, according to medical scientists, it is the nature of a virus. But amateur I may be, I see the Covid-19 totally as powerful as it was a year ago, has already killed three million and is still ready to kill the whole world. As long as it is free to roam and wreak havoc in the Philippines, it will increase hunger. Can we embrace this and better prepare ourselves to help the hungry?

Meanwhile, community pantries are a major solution. More resources and better systems will not only feed the stomachs, but our passion to help each other.

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Norma P. Rex

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