Long, winding road home for stranded people
MANILA, Philippines—It could take acrobatic skills to lie on a road gutter to get some sleep, not on your back but sideways.
At a noon heat index of 42 degrees Celsius, it could be deadly.
But dozens of people performing the act has become a familiar sight near the Philippine Army headquarters in Fort Bonifacio in Taguig City.
A strip of road just outside the gates of the Libingan ng Mga Bayani (Heroes’ Graveyard) and Bayani Road (Heroes’ Road) outside the Army golf course has become a pitstop for stranded individuals, nearly all of the workers, who lost their jobs in Metro Manila, and their families.
They wait for rides that would take them to their hometowns in the Visayas and Mindanao or to their next pitstop in a journey away from the metropolis where their search for greener pasture often ended in disappointment but consolation that they had jobs that were alien to their places of origin.
The government had given them an official term, Locally Stranded Individuals (LSI), which has suddenly become part of the lexicon that the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has created. Their predicament had been stamped with the initials LSIs.
To protect them from the elements, tents made out of tarpaulin were tied to road fences which the stranded people squeeze themselves under to seek shade from the burning rays of the sun.
A peek in the tents would show babies, elderly women and men, women, men and children huddled close to plastic grocery bags, soiled pieces of luggage and carton boxes that contain clothes and other possessions.
A box for wine bottles accidentally ripped open outside one of the tarpaulin tents, revealing its contents—infant and children’s clothes, diapers and folders spilling pieces of paper crumpled by the weight of other stuff packed in the now crumbling box. It disgorged a narrative of what its owner considered valuables—a small Winnie the Pooh stuffed toy, plastic bracelets in the colors of the rainbow and dolls with unwashed clothes and some missing limbs.
An elderly woman flashed a yellowish picture of a hut standing in what looked like the middle of a field somewhere in Zamboanga del Sur. “We’re going home!” she yelled, waving the picture in her hand protruding from the shade of the tarpaulin tent.
Behind her and sleeping sideways on the gutter was a man. “My son! Jobless now!” she yelled again.
A Good Samaritan, who dropped off a plastic bag of burgers, yelled from his car to ask: “What was his work?”
The elderly woman, wearing a mask below a head wrap, answered with hand gestures mimicking the act of swinging a hammer—her son was in construction.
‘We’re not OK’
Lying also sideways on the gutter beside the woman’s son was a girl, who was as big as the piece of luggage with browned images of Dora, a cartoon character, that also lay sideways behind her back to keep her from falling off what looked like a half-meter wide gutter. “Grandchild!,” the woman shouted.
The Good Samaritan in the car, his window rolled down, yelled another question, one that the woman could have heard countless of times without knowing if those asking really wanted answers or just ran out of words: “How are you?!”
The woman took a deep breath. No words came out but she shook her head and gestured again with her hands moving in a circle which commonly meant “We’re not OK.”
“Take care on your trip!” the Good Samaritan yelled back before driving off.
The stranded woman shouted “Thank You!” as the Good Samaritan’s car disappeared, her voice barely audible as the cries of babies and children grew louder.
She removed the burgers from the plastic bag to give to her grandchildren and other families sitting on the road with their belongings close by. One burger she placed on top of the piece of luggage which served as a divider between her sleeping granddaughter and the road.
Then she stood briefly to turn her gaze outside the tarpaulin tent—there’s no Army truck yet to fetch them.
At another tarpaulin tent, a man was shouting instructions to his children. “No food yet! You have to wait!” he yelled at a girl and two boys who were wailing in a desperate clamor for something to eat.
“No food yet! You have to wait!” the shout came repeatedly mixing with the loud sound of crying by children.
Across the stranded individuals’ pitstop stood a small restaurant that had been shuttered during enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and was slowly reopening when the stranded persons arrived on the other side of the road.
It specialized in fried breaded chicken, as its signage indicated. A glance at its menu inside also listed sandwiches, cold or hot coffee, shakes and frap with a logo closely resembling that of a highly popular international coffee franchise.
But in the one night and two days that the pitstop for stranded persons emerged across the restaurant, it served only one dish—porridge.
It was for the stranded families, who had gathered across the restaurant.
“We pooled our money for that,” said a worker at a car wash located behind the restaurant. “There’s chicken there,” he said, pointing to a stockpot sitting in a chair inside the restaurant, steam coming out of it.
The workers, he said, felt a responsibility to help the families who had brought all their possessions with them but had no food to eat.
Since the restaurant was only slowly reopening, it was understaffed. One cook and one server who also did the duties of a cashier were all that the restaurant had. The car wash had less than 10 employees and only half had been able to report back to work even after ECQ gave way to a looser General Community Quarantine (GCQ).
“So the money we pooled was barely enough,” said the car wash worker, who gave his name only as Armando.
The owner—of the restaurant and car wash—came to visit on the night that families started to arrive at the pitstop across his businesses, mostly walking from various areas in Metro Manila which they had gotten stuck in because of travel restrictions.
“The boss said he’ll handle it,” Armando said of the need for money to keep the porridge pot filled for the stranded people.
For at least a night and two days, the porridge flowed for the people waiting for rides home.
The first batch of porridge was gone in under an hour. Disposable bowls filled with rice and chicken in broth were moved out through the restaurant’s front door and placed in the hands of stranded people who had formed a queue outside noticeably keeping distance to heed COVID-19 health protocol.
The man, who had been yelling to his children to wait for food, came out of the queue trying not to trip over as he carried three bowls of porridge, much like waiters bringing plates of food in their arms to customers’ tables.
His children ran out of the shadows of the tarpaulin tent holding out hands to their father who was shouting “Stay there! Stay there!” as he approached his spot on the roadside.
Just as his children were starting to spoon the porridge into their mouths, the roar of an Army truck sent people out into the noon sun, running and walking briskly. It wasn’t the stranded people’s ride yet, just a pair of soldiers handing out food in disposable plasticware.
The man went back to the restaurant, pulling out a wallet from his pocket and counting 20-peso bills. “Can I buy Coke?” he told the lone server sitting by the cashier’s table. The server stood, opened a transparent ref and took out three Coke in cans. She handed these to the man saying “Don’t pay for it.”
“Not yet! It’s not!,” yelled the elderly woman to her son who had been roused from his gutter sleep by the roar of the truck and had gone out to the road as well.
The woman’s son returned to his spot on the gutter, sitting on his daughter’s Dora luggage, removing his face mask briefly to wipe his eyes.
“How long still?! I’m so tired!” he yelled to his mother. “Would I know?! Only if I did!” came the loud reply.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on the economy and daily lives have reduced these able-bodied men and women briefly into helpless dependency.
Hundreds of establishments, many considered as small and medium-scale, were shuttered when lockdowns were enforced to stop the transmission of SARS Cov2, the virus that causes COVID-19, by keeping its host locked in place—humans.
Among the countless, who lost jobs, are tens of thousands of people who came from the provinces and had been staying in Metro Manila for only one purpose—to find employment.
According to data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), at least 7.3 million Filipino adults lost their jobs in April when Metro Manila and other parts of the country were placed on ECQ, the stringest form of community quarantine meant to keep people indoors and coronavirus from spreading.
That month, the PSA data showed, unemployment rose to a record high of 17.7 percent. In April 2019, the jobless rate was single-digit—5.1 percent.
The impact was most painful among those dependent on daily wages and salaries, who account for at least two-thirds of all workers.
The PSA data also showed that while 13 million kept their jobs, they were unable to report for work as stay-at-home orders prohibited them from going out.
The data also showed a massive cut in jobs in several sectors:
- Electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply jobs fell by 43.1 percent
- Information and communication shed 40.6 percent of jobs.
- The hospitality industry—accommodation and food services—shed 35.8 percent of jobs
- Construction shed at least 66 percent of jobs
- Services sector lost 48.8 percent of jobs
- Agriculture lost 33 percent of jobs
- Industrial sector shed 17.4 percent of jobs
According to the PSA data, all regions recorded double-digit unemployment.
At another pitstop for stranded persons near the Philippine Army HQ, the rains were starting to fall as those waiting for rides in military trucks sat or lay on a portion of the road that had been marked as a bike lane.
Quickly, soldiers in camouflage uniform ushered in the stranded people into the Army gym, a distance of about 50 meters from the road.
Women and men clung to their children, running as fast as they can to the shelter that the gym offered.
Barely an hour later, the rains stopped and the sun shone as fiercely as it did just minutes ago. The stranded people filed out of the gym back on the road to wait for the Army truck that would transport them to either of only two places—their hometowns or another pitstop but definitely away from a metropolis which had given them jobs.
A soldier escorting the stranded back on the road said his biggest fear for families at the pitstop, with children and the elderly in tow, was for any of them to get sideswiped by vehicles because the road where they wait for their rides is a busy one.
“I really wish it was easy for them,” said the soldier, who refused to give his name. “But it’s not.”
Back at the pitstop across the restaurant on the road strip leading to Libingan ng Mga Bayani, the stranded people were starting to clamber up a six-by-six Army truck. Some were shouting in glee. “Uwian na! (Homecoming!),” many shouted.
Armando, the car wash worker, said he felt glad the people finally got their ride. He heaved a sigh, though. “Tomorrow, another batch will be there,” he said, gesturing with his finger at the spot now slowly being emptied of stranded people. “We’ll just cook porridge again.” [ac]
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