When the national lockdown started in mid-March, it was evident that people’s anxieties were at peak levels brought about by a pandemic reaching the country’s shores. One that has been downplayed by government agencies and President Duterte himself. Just like in neighboring countries; schools were closed, ‘non-essential’ jobs halted operations, public transport was banned, among other efforts to contain the pandemic. Online, specifically social media sites, people tried to make sense of the country standing still. Cultural workers, and creatives in general, got into creating and sharing lockdown diaries; what books they read, what films they watched, and what routines inside their respective homes kept them sane, as numbers of deaths and infected rise coupled with cases of government ineptitude and abuses one after the other.
After a few weeks, a general consensus formed in these circles, people got strained or ran out of things to say. Activities in these groups slowed down, you can only express your outrage and uncertainties in so many ways. Kamusta Kayo? Naratibo ng Kababaihang Magbubukid Ngayong Pandemya is a zine that is an alternative to this creative dead end. When the lockdown was imposed, the Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women and Rural Women Advocates (RUWA) instead started INA.aruga, an online forum with the aim to gather narratives and testimonies of women and mothers in the countryside and how the pandemic affected their livelihoods and day to day lives. Prepared by the feminist publisher Gantala Press, the zine was launched online last June 10 and a digital copy can be acquired after a donation has been made to Amihan. All proceed will to go to efforts in helping families in Samar trying to get back on their feet after Typhoon Ambo. While all were preoccupied with the virus, the said tropical storm reached signal no. 3 and ravaged the eastern part of the country in mid-May.
The introductions by Zenaida Soriano from Amihan and Rae Rival from RUWA provide a concise situationer of rural women in the different parts of the country. I will no longer get into the details of the events of since the lockdown, primarily because it is public knowledge. Noteworthy is how the introductions frame the previous devastating experiences of farming and fisherfolk communities put them at a greatly disadvantaged position to face a public health crisis. Some of these include intensified militarization of the countryside, predatory land conversion, implementation of the Rice Liberalization Law (RA 11203) and the resulting plunge of prices, and lack of decent irrigation facilities which makes the worsening heat of the summer months more grim.
Impressive also is how comprehensive the calls of the mass organizations are. They range from immediate and local (proper and transparent distribution of aid, efficient systems of travel for food, free mass testing) to long-term and global (food security as a target through strengthening of the National Food Authority, pushing for genuine land distribution, and stopping the continued disastrous liberalization of agriculture). These prepositions would be substantiated by voices of actual peasant women and mothers. The testimonies in Filipino were partly edited or shortened for clarity. All translations into English are mine.
Most testimonies are a paragraph or so, some are simple answers to a set of questions, and one poem. They were able to collect, in varying numbers, from the areas or provinces of Cagayan, Isabela, Tarlac, Bataan, Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Oriental Mindoro, Bicol, Panay, and Bohol. This not exactly nation-wide, but still a large coverage for a panoramic perspective. Art works and comics by Yssa Brila, Marc Cosico (who also did the cover), Faye Cura with coloring by Angeli Lacson, and Je Malazarte divide the sections.
The most prominent concern among those included in the zine is suspension of livelihoods or fear of completely losing it. People are not allowed to leave their houses so they can’t sell their crops in the market. Some can’t work in the fields at all. The limiting of movement is imposed by presence of the police and the military guided by poorly planned policies not foreseeing the effects of disrupting the movement of goods on small food producers. Virginia Edamag from Cagayan shares her family’s predicament, “Mahirap ang kalagayan namin noong nagsimula ang lockdown dahil hindi naman kami makalabas upang maghanap ng kabuhayan lalo at istrikto sila rito sa amin. Tuloy-tuloy pa rin naman naming inaasikaso ang aming bukid ngunit wala naman kaming mapagbentahan ng aming ani.’Yung pinagbebentahan namin ay hindi rin naman pinapayagang lumabas upang mamili.” [Our situation have been very difficult since the start of the lockdown because we can’t leave the house and work especially since they are strict in our place. We can keep taking care of our plots but we have nowhere to sell our harvest. Our supposed customers can’t buy from us because they can’t leave their homes as well.] Families resort to planting vegetables for subsistence, but admit that the set-up won’t last if the lockdown drags on.
That being said great detail comes into talking about government aid, lack thereof, it not being enough, or its delayed release. Virginia Lugares from Isabela says, “Nagbibigay naman ang LGU ng relief kada 5-7 araw. Pero kulang sa amin ang relief lalo na at walong tao kami sa isang pamilya.” [The LGU does provide relief packages every 5-7 days. But it is not enough in our case since there are eight of us in our family.] Virginia Duaman from the same province, “Ang kinakain naman ngayon ay mga relief goods na binibigay gaya ng sardinas at noodles, at tanim naming gulay. Dalawang linggo na ang lockdown bago nabigay ng 3 kilo ng bigas at dalawang sardinas ang LGU. Tatlong wave na ang naibigay. Nakakatulog din sa pang-araw-araw ang mga relief, pero kulang.” [What we have been eating recently are from the relief goods given to us like sardines and noodles, also vegetables we planted ourselves. It was already two weeks of lockdown before they gave 3 kilos of rice, two cans of sardines. Three waves have since been distributed. It is a big help in our day to day, but it is not enough.] Scarlett Andulan from Bataan is frustrated, “Saan makakaabot ang 3 kilong bigas, 3 sardinas, at 1 Payless? Paano po ang gatas ng aking anak?” [How far can 3 kilos of rice, 3 cans of sardines, and 1 pack of Payless noodles go? How about my child’s milk?] Many cases of technicalities also prevented people from receiving aid, like those already included in the 4Ps program or households with senior citizens. There were also instances of patronage politics in the baranggay level, from the aid having taken several cuts by the time it reaches people to names being completely taken out of lists of supposed beneficiaries.
Since these options don’t work, people resort to borrowing to the neighboring tiangge. There is something touching about neighbors understanding each other situations but, as respondents acknowledge, debts can’t pile up forever. If they need money for other expenses, some turn to loan sharks and extended family. An important response is in grassroots organizing from coordinating donations from private individuals and organizations to setting up and running community kitchens. An exceptional case is by the members of Kalipunan ng mga Lehitimong Magsasaka at Mamamayan ng Lupang Ramos (KASAMA-LR), a peasant group in Cavite whose narratives Gantala Press previous collected and published. Miriam Villanueva asserts, “Kailangan gumawa ng paraan ang samahan para hindi magutom ang 120 pamilyang kasapi. Kailangang magplano ng mga pagkilos para hingin ang dapat ay sa amin, lalo pa ang P6,500 na magmumula sa DSWD at ayuda mula sa DA. Nagsumba kami sa bukid sa likod ng mga plakard, nagtirik kami ng mga kandila kasabay ng mga panalangin at nag-noise barrage kami sa mga pintuan ng bahay; ang resulta nakarating sa lahat ng aming kasapi ang P6,500, kung meron mang hindi nabigyan walang iba ito kundi ang mga lider ng samahan at isa ako dun.” [The collective had to find a way so that our membership of 120 families won’t go hungry. Mobilizations had to be done to demand what is rightfully ours, especially the P6,500 coming from DSWD and the aid from the DA. We danced in the fields behind placards, we lighted candles while praying, we did a noise barrage from the doorsteps of our homes; the result is all our members received the P6,500, if there are those who didn’t get it, it is no other than the leaders of the collective and I am one of those.]
Nanay Susan adds, “Ang samahan ang nahihingahan namin ng problema at napagsasabihan, malaking tulong ito sa akin.” [The collective is our place of reprieve from problems as well as a venue for raising concerns, it is a great help to me.] Organizing efforts like these around the country are routinely subject to harassment and red-tagging, and even killing of leaders as the case of Jory Porqia in Iloilo attest. Local leaders of Amihan from chapters in Bicol and Panay are unsurprisingly more articulate about the situation but it is apparent that it is grounded on the experiences and struggles of their communities. This passionate candidness is a breath of fresh air when juxtaposed to the technical language and figures of official state announcements.
Aside from the day to day efforts for survival, one can also glimpse the internal making sense of the pandemic through the testimonies. Many have very broad understandings of the pandemic; it is a deadly disease and that is all there is to it. One of the questions asked is Ano ang pagkakaunawa niyo sa COVID-19? [What is your understanding of COVID-19?] Here are some responses. Weng Tanya from Tarlac, “Isang nakakatakot na sakit.” [A frightening disease.] Russel Hopio from Cavite, “Virus na hindi dapat isawalang-bahala dahil ito ay kumikitil ng buhay.” [A virus that shouldn’t be taken lightly because it is deadly.] Gretchen Piamonte from Laguna, “Ang COVID-19 ay nakakatakot na virus na puwedeng ikamatay. Dahil sa kanya ay nagbago ang takbo ng buhay ng bawat tao. Nawa ay mawala na si COVID-19 para maging maayos at maging normal na ang lahat.” [COVID-19 is a dreadful and deadly virus. Because of it, the lives of each and everyone has changed. I hope COVID-19 will be gone soon so that order can be restored and things could return to normal.] No cares if it was from a person eating a bat or if it came out from a military lab, if it’s a geopolitical maneuver or a biblical prophesy being fulfilled, and other permutations of conspiracy theories that proliferate online. People want to go back to normal even if that normal means barely getting by.
Many are were expecting doctors and medical personnel to visit their communities but anxious to see soldiers in camouflage instead. This dread is intensified by reports of violence, arrests, or death to quarantine violators. Reactions from the members of KASAMA-LR are revealing. Nanay Venus said, “Paano ko susundin ang mga batas na ipinatutupad sa panahon na ito at paano rin kung hindi ko masunod o malabag ito ng isa sa aking pamilya – ano ang mangyayari sa amin at saan kami dadalhin kung kami ay paparusahan? Halimbawa, nakalimot akong magsuot ng face mask paglabas ng bahay o nakaiwan ako ng quarantine pass at nahuli ako, ikukulong, pagmumultahin e wala ngang kinikita. Ewan!” [How am I supposed to follow laws implemented at this time and what happens if I or a family of mine fail to do so – what will happen to us and where will they take us to be punished? For example, I forgot to wear a face mask when I leave the house or if I left behind my quarantine pass and I got caught, I’ll be detained in prison, I’ll be made to pay a fine even when I’m not earning anything! I don’t know!]
Nanay Babylyn shares, “Taning umaasa kami sa aming samahan at pagkakaisang labanan ang COVID-19 dahil napakalabo ng plano ng gobyerno sa amin. Ang alam lang nila ay manakot at ituring na ang lahat ng taong lumalaban sa karapatan ay NPA.” [We are all putting our faith in our collective in uniting to fight COVID-19 because government plans for us are so vague. All they are good at is making threats and consider anyone fighting for their rights as NPA] The late night mix of rants and gibberish of President Duterte, or its relay the next morning, does not provide comfort at all. Many don’t understand a pandemic but have lived through Martial Law. The chilling effects of mere talks, or treats, of its declaration bothers many. Nanay Tess declares, “Napapamura na lang din ako ‘pag nagsasalita si Duterte sa presscon. Di ba virus ang kalaban natin? Bakit may mga baril? Ano nga ba ang puntirya: virus o NPA?” [I end up cursing myself whenever Duterte speaks at presscons. Isn’t our enemy a virus? Why take out guns? Who exactly is the target: the virus or the NPA?]
Domestic tensions also gets shared or mentioned a couple of times. Women often stay and deal with chores or looking after infants or kids not school. It is the peak of summer and cramped housing arraignments is an added problem. While men look for gigs and day jobs, or resort to begging, women are left worrying what can happen to them. Some expressed fears of being pregnant or giving birth at this time. The elderly, helping extended households get by, worry of their maintenance medication running out. There is no mention of domestic violence in the zine but official reports paint a grim picture of rising incidents in the country.
The zine is concluded by an essay on food revolution by Nona Andaya-Castillo and a short recipe for atsara by Mabi David. Andaya-Castillo asserts that the pandemic is an ample time to reflect on unhealthy and profit driven food production systems in the world. By taking efforts of sustainable organic farming seriously can we stay healthier during this pandemic, and beyond. David meanwhile shares a simple and cheap recipe of food preserving to help people get by, as well as a healthier alternative to canned goods and instants noodles. I greatly appreciate these essays as they position organic food diets and vegetarianism not as lifestyle choices for the affluent, but urgent concerns for the community as a whole, with sociopolitical repercussions beyond health matters.
This is where the zine ends. All those in 50 pages or so. A conclusion I can recommend is a call to cultural workers, and anyone willing, to replicate this creative effort. We now have better means of communication and, without completely disregarding self-care, I assert that, in drastic times, collective testimonies outweigh diary-type documentations. A few weeks ago, I was reading the another Gantala Press title, Lawanen: Mga Alaala ng Pagkubkob, Mga Haraya ng Pag-igpaw from 2018. Also an anthology of voices, this time about the experiences of the Marawi Siege and subsequent Martial Law in Mindanao, especially of Meranaw women and children. Marawi City remains in ruins to this day. How are they handling the pandemic? Janet Roitman argues that crises are narrative devices, bursting open certain questions while foreclosing others. Can we still have animated discourse about the Marawi Siege in the period of COVID-19? We must. This also applies to the situation of rural women and their communities. The same goes for health workers, students, indigenous peoples, migrant workers, and so on. People who bore the brunt of a broken and dying system, newly exposed to some by the pandemic. People who might have deemed their voices not as valuable in the middle of a crisis, or they themselves have internalized their severalfold predicaments as fate. If we are to get out of this pandemic, this has to change.
Cultural workers should recognize the vital task of them having to take a backseat in collecting and presenting these voices. Some might be lukewarm to the idea of reading about experiences of specific groups, especially those distant, or seemingly distant, to their own immediate lives. One mother, again Russel Hopio from Cavite, when asked about her message to authorities, prioritized asking for personal protective equipment for health front-liners, and only then requested for aid distribution to those in need like herself. This demonstration of empathy by individuals, coupled with comprehensive calls by grassroots organizing, should be the prevalent sentiment and bond of solidarity of the new normal. This zine is a blueprint for that project.
I started drafting this essay the evening of June 20, when I read about the murder of Harold Tablazon, former peasant organizer and current barangay kagawad, and Glenn Bunda, an SK chairman in Tubungan, Iloilo. They were shot 32 times. Tablazon was active in the peasant organization Federation of Iloilo Farmers Association (FIFA), an affiliate of Pamanggas-Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas. I was polishing this essay the next evening, June 21, when I read about the critical condition of Jolina Calot, a student of the University of Eastern Philippines (UEP) and League of Filipino Students (LFS) member, after her house has been strafed allegedly by state forces in Palapag, Northern Samar. Calot’s father and a companion, both farmers and have been subjected to red-tagging, were killed. Her mother and sibling were wounded. More killings under the Duterte regime while the country is facing a pandemic. Amplifying the volume of multitude of voices and narratives of dissent from the margins is needed more than ever.
Gantala Press official website.
Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women official website.
Rural Women Advocates (RUWA) Facebook page.
Online launch of the zine.
Review of Kamusta Kayo? Zine from Hannah Agustin.