When hunger hit the poor, the Tulong Anakpawis (Help the Toiling Masses) together with another organization, Sagip Kanayunan (Relief Countryside), went into action. They formed community pantries in the areas that needed the most help. And in each location, they put up the sign, “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangangailangan,” which translates to “Give what you can, get what you need.” Immediately, they were associated with the slogan popularized by Karl Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” And right away, they were branded “communists” and red-tagged by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) as communist fronts. Thus, every community pantry organized in the country became a suspected communist front.
In my column, “Bayanihan in the Maginhawa Community Pantry” (May 7, 2021), I wrote: “It all began on April 14, 2021 when Ana Patricia Non installed the pantry on Maginhawa St. in Teachers’ Village, Diliman, Quezon City. She stocked it with 800 pesos (US$16.50) worth of groceries.
“Word of mouth spread quickly, which caused donations such as rice, vegetables, eggs, canned goods, biscuits, drinks, medicines, and other essential items to arrive.
“When asked why she founded the community pantry, she said that all she ever wanted was to give the people who have nothing to have at least something to eat to surpass their hunger.”
From that small kitchen that Ana started, hundreds of community pantries sprouted like mushrooms from as far as Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao, and Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte in the north.
The Baseco Compound – a barangay of 60,000 poor people – was one of them. Let’s take a look at a family of nine children and one grandchild. The mother Mona Liza had to grapple with where to get the food to feed her family. It has become a daily struggle for survival.
When the lockdown was imposed, fishing was banned in the sea, which was the lifeline for many Baseco residents who live in Manila’s Port Area.
“We don’t have anything for my children’s food, for our daily expenses,” Mona Liza said. “Sometimes, at night, we don’t have anything to eat, we can only wait for the next day.”
Indeed, if they don’t catch fish, there is nothing to eat. Some families just live on burnt rice and salt with water. Tulong Anakpawis had organized a community pantry to feed the poor in Baseco, but there were never enough to feed them. Many people can only afford to eat once a day.
During the pandemic, the government distributed food parcels and provided several cash handouts of 4,000 pesos ($80) to the poor. But the beneficiaries used that money to pay off their store debts, buy medicine, and cover some of the family’s living expenses. But it’s not enough, so the community pantries have become the families’ only regular form of sustenance.
Meanwhile, on April 19, six volunteers of Tulong Anakpawis and Sagip Kanayunan were on their way to distribute relief goods when they were flagged down in a police checkpoint.
The group had the necessary food pass and permits to deliver the relief goods. They wore face masks and observed social distancing. Yet, without explanation, the police ordered the group to proceed to the Norzagaray Municipal Police Station. Several residents who met the volunteers at the checkpoint were also advised to go to the police station.
At around noon, former Anakpawis Rep. Ariel Casilao arrived at the police station to negotiate for the release of the relief volunteers. The police refused to release them and gave no reason for their detention. After a couple of hours the police chief agreed to turn over the goods to the barangay for distribution to the beneficiaries.
However, after a few minutes, Casilao and the volunteers were called back by the police and were told to proceed to Paombong, Bulacan and later to the Bulacan Provincial Police Office in Malolos City, where they were asked to wait for the police director.
When the police director arrived, he admonished Casilao and shouted at the relief volunteers, and started accusing them of bringing propaganda materials against the government. The police confiscated their Food Pass.
At 5 p.m. the volunteers were ordered back to the Norzagaray Police Station for inquest proceedings and that they would be charged for violating the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) guidelines on Authorized Persons Outside of Residence. At the police station, the group underwent medical examination and their mugshots were taken. But still no formal charges were made against them and their detention continued.
After three days of detention, charges of violating the Republic Act 11332 or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act was filed against them. The six volunteers and Casilao were released after posting bail of P40,000 each. Casilao was charged with Inciting to Sedition and Usurpation of Authority.
In a statement sent to the media outlets, Casilao asserted that they did nothing wrong and did not violate the quarantine rules. “It was an attack on activists carrying out humanitarian activities and adhered to the bayanihan spirit in this time of an emergency situation,” Casilao said in his statement.
Meanwhile, Tulong Anakpawis and Sagip Kanayunan said that they would continue to deliver relief aid to communities of farmers, fisherfolk, and urban poor that were hardly hit by the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).
“It is both the right and duty of every Filipino to aid those in need. The government has no moral authority to sabotage the relief efforts of activists. The delivery of relief packs to the impoverished communities will continue,” Casilao said.
The judge upon hearing the charges against the six volunteers and Casilao, dropped the charge of violating RA11332 saying that it was not an offense of said law. However, the judge did not dismiss the charges of Inciting to Sedition and Usurpation of Authority against Casilao.
What have we learned from these two incidents? What happened to the volunteers is an abuse of power by the police, who instead of helping the volunteers, had harassed them. The Duterte administration should – nay, must – provide assistance to the volunteers to alleviate their sufferings from police bureaucratic tactics. In other words – cut the bureaucracy! It has no place in times of pandemic. For many of these families, the fear of COVID-19 will never compare to the more acute daily threat of hunger. Hunger kills.