IT HAS been the dream of all Filipinos, the government in particular, to flatten the curve. This means either slowing down the transmission or decreasing the cases one day after another. How will this happen? Well, the government has implemented the ECQ and it has been over a month now, almost two months in fact, of a life that is generally regulated. Practically, we are trying to avoid probabilities of passing on the virus from one person to another. But nothing concrete and hopeful beyond that.
The government seems blind to some factors that not only increase the chances of transmission but, practically, make it difficult for any effort to succeed. What I am saying in clearer terms is this: the quarantine, curfews, suspension of public transportation and even massive testing are all useless in the face of one difficult reality to change in our present situation: HOUSING.
We have to be honest and realistic in reading our situation: our structures make it difficult for the transmission to slow down. People’s responses to the government’s policies vary depending on their social and economic location. Physical distancing is not hard to comply for those who have enough space. Sadly, you cannot expect this from a family of six or more renting a thirty square meter room. It is easy for some to stay at home but not for those who need to buy their consumption daily or depending on their earning.
The problem of housing in the Philippines is old. Sadly, it is one of the most neglected. The attitude of local governments toward squatting or informal settlements is ambivalent. It is no secret that our politicians rely on the collective support of informal settlers during elections. For the politician, the poor and their constant multiplication in number is not a problem but the key to their political success. Not until Covid-19 has slapped us all to wake up and acknowledge life’s greater threats.
The team of Edna Co who wrote “Philippine Democracy Assessment on Socio-Economic Rights” already revealed the problem in 2007. According to them since the late 1990s the government has estimated some 700,000 housing units needed for Metro Manila. For the entire country, approximately three (3) million are needed for citizens to have a decent living. These are all estimates and the needs could be more. The National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) reported an estimated backlog of over 900,000 units between 2005 and 2010.
Sadly, no president has exerted so much effort to address or at least minimize the problems related to housing. This has been unsolved and passed on from one administration to another. Despite the promises of presidents (e.g. President Estrada who was most popular in his pro-poor campaign advocacy) many Filipinos have remained without decent homes. True that relocations of squatters were done in the past. But because the process was and has never been that scientific, poverty and urbanization have been problems waiting to erupt.
The poor population management strategy of the government (not to mention the delayed legislation of the Reproductive Health law) has exacerbated the problem of housing. The number of people is increasing not because they believe that life is a gift but because they have not been taught why managing the size of the household is important.
Side by side with this are other enduring realities in the Philippine electoral and democratic landscape. Politicians especially in provinces continue to represent the oligarchies that have thrived on land-based politics. New politicians have entered the seen but are either not strong enough to push for reforms or are but additional recruits to an old system.
The location and arrangement of the houses of the poor do not follow the same formalities and luxuries in spacing, symmetry and of course the quality of materials with those who belong to the middle class or high-income brackets. Precisely why the poor live and suffer combinations of isolation, lack of infrastructure, lack of services, crime, pollution, and vulnerability to floods among many other disasters.
Already in 1994, economist Arsenio Balisacan emphasized the correlation between housing and health, which according to him (and this was decades ago) are growing concerns of the poor in rapidly urbanizing areas. Logically, there is an inverse relationship between the quality of housing and the chances of vulnerability to health hazards. The cases of Covid-19 are increasing especially among barangays with high population density. It is not the people’s “choice” nor their inability to follow rules that contribute to the apparent unsuccessful efforts.
Despite mass testing we will not see a flattening of the curve soon. Perhaps the government should acknowledge the very cause of the problem and hopefully not wait for the next election to address it.