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  • Paola Torrani

Tough Choices: COVID-19 or hunger

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

With the Philippine government deciding to implement lockdowns in the country to prevent community transmission of COVID-19, millions of jobless Filipinos worry about survival. Facing the risks of contracting the virus and violating quarantine protocols, they are forced to go out to provide food for their families.

By Jerico Daracan

Most vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 are public health workers including barangay health workers (BHWs), who are at the frontline of our battle against the pandemic. Delivering community-level health programs, BHWs keep an eye on persons under monitoring (PUMs) and ensure that health protocols are being implemented and observed.

A BHW for 9 years in Perez, Quezon Province, Minda Alpuerto admits her worries on possibly contracting the disease, especially for someone who lives in their island. "What we see is truly heart-breaking, more so, when it’s one of us (community health workers) who gets sick. For us living in an island, travel is very difficult. There is so much paperwork. It is very hard, especially the money," said Minda.

As a low-income community, access to health services has been a challenge in their island. Aside from being expensive, getting to the nearest hospital with adequate facilities in the mainland province would take them hours of travel. It was only six months, however, since the beginning of lockdown in March 2020 when Minda's worries on possibly getting infected, happened. A niece who lives next-door was traced to have interacted with an infected person from a neighbouring community.

Considered as second-degree contacts, Minda and her family were put on a mandatory 14-day home quarantine in September 2020, which meant that she could not perform her BHW duties during this period— a cutback from their community health workforce. And with her family that primarily relies on fishing aside from her Php1,200 monthly honorarium as a BHW, Minda’s husband was forced to go out even during their quarantine period. Untested, he went fishing daily to provide for their food. “We were afraid of contracting the virus and violating protocols, but we had no choice. Even though we didn’t want to go out, we would have no food to eat and starve to death,” shared Minda. One thing was clear. For a family that is not as privileged as others who have stable sources of income, being starved to death is more dreadful than contracting the virus, which has already claimed the lives of more than a million globally. Sewing and repairing clothes during their isolation period at home somehow helped Minda earn an extra income.

When they were finished, Minda was happy to be finally back at her BHW duties. Her husband could finally fish without worries of violating quarantine protocols. But only a month had passed, her daughter who works as a babysitter tested positive for COVID-19. She contracted the disease from her employer who works in their municipal office. Considered as first-degree contacts, their whole family were immediately tested for COVID-19 on October 17, 2020. After getting positive results, except for the youngest family member, they were rushed to the quarantine facility for another isolation period. And because no one would look after their 5-year-old daughter who tested negative, she was also brought with them.

None of them experienced any symptoms. Free food was provided in the patients’ facility until they were released. But none of these had erased Minda’s insecurities and worries.

She was unsure whether or not she would receive help from the local government, especially that their shelter was also heavily affected during the onslaught of Super Typhoon Rolly (Goni) that ravaged their island in November 2020.

Evidently, Minda managed to overcome her worries of contracting the virus. But as a community health worker during this pandemic, who does not receive enough compensation to meet her family’s basic needs for survival, her insecurities will always remain unless a better and a more humane working condition for them is provided.

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