Manila, Philippines – Over the past week, small charity grocery stalls have sprung up on street corners and back alleys all over the Philippines, offering free food to those in need and soliciting donations from anyone willing to give. , as many families across the country go hungry during the extended COVID -19 lockdown.
“Give what you can afford, take what you need,” read the signs at each booth, which organizers call “community pantry”.
The movement, helped by social networks, has gone viral in the archipelago, whose economy is now languishing because of the pandemic.
The economy contracted by an unprecedented 9.5% rate in 2020 due to intermittent lockdowns, leading to the shutdown of many businesses.
In February, some 4.2 million Filipinos were unemployed, according to government data, which also predicted that up to 17.5 percent of the country’s 110 million people would remain poor this year.
When Winnie Rayos Dimanlig, a local government worker in Manila, read an article on Facebook about the first community pantry in a nearby neighborhood, she also decided to start one right away.
“The beauty of the community pantry is its simplicity. You have a cart there, you fill it with food that anyone who needs to overcome their hunger can just take, and anyone who has too much can add, ”Dimanlig told Al Jazeera.
She told her friends about the idea and donations arrived. On Monday, Dimanlig opened his community pantry outside his house, with rice, vegetables, fruits, meat, canned goods and other staple foods stacked on small tables and shelves on the sidewalk.
Hundreds of queues
Hundreds of poor people lined up for a round of choice among the items on offer. On Saturday, Dimanlig counted at least 700 people who came to his community pantry.
At first, her friends worried that their supplies were running out, but they were amazed at how quickly donations were pouring in, many coming from overseas.
“We brought people in just to deposit their contributions. There are more donations now from people I don’t even know, ”Dimanlig said.
The Dimanlig Community Pantry is one of 350 similar efforts launched by ordinary people in different parts of the Philippines. There is even one in East Timor, supported by the local Filipino community.
The line at 10am for the Maginhawa Community Pantry. It’s a 4 to 5 hour wait, but people endure because they have lost their income and need food assistance. No one takes more than they need for the day. The Philippines is in the midst of its worst COVID-19 surge and recession. pic.twitter.com/lYXEfoFLoW
– Barnaby Lo Wu Zonghong (@barnabychuck) April 23, 2021
‘Tired of inaction’
It all started on April 14, when Ana Patricia Non, a young furniture designer and businesswoman, left a wooden cart full of food on the corner of a street in a university village in Manila.
Passers-by were initially hesitant to take things from the cart – it seemed too good to be true, and the needy tend to be ashamed of their poverty. No had to assure them that there was no taking and that they really didn’t have to pay for what they took.
“I’m tired of complaining. I’m tired of inaction, ”No told the Manila-based Rappler news site when his community pantry began to gain public attention.
“This community pantry has become a way to prove to ourselves that we can help each other and that we are able to organize ourselves,” she added at a press conference.
The Philippine government has been widely criticized by experts and citizens for its lukewarm response to the pandemic. President Rodrigo Duterte recently called the crisis a “little thing” even as COVID infections have reached record numbers.
On Friday, the health department reported 8,719 new infections and a total number of cases of nearly 980,000. The death toll from COVID in the country has reached 16,500.
To avoid the new wave of infections, Manila and its surrounding provinces were once again stranded. Day workers doing odd jobs are unable to make a living, but the government has capped financial assistance for them at $ 20 per person, saying social protection funds are depleted.
Many Filipinos viewed community pantries as an inadvertent indictment of government “inaction”.
“There is so much darkness not only because of the pandemic, but also how this government is dealing with the pandemic and all of the issues associated with it. It’s right – we have to do something, ”Dimanlig said.
Dindo Manhit, chairman of the Stratbase ADR Institute think tank, told Al Jazeera that people are no longer waiting for government action but have taken the initiative to do their part.
But what Non said about “complaining” and “inaction” in the face of the pandemic may have offended the government.
“It can be seen as a political statement,” Manhit said.
Days after No’s initiative gained public attention, the army-led anti-Communist task force began “background checking” of the organizers.
Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr, the agency’s spokesperson, said some community pantries were handing out brochures containing anti-government propaganda.
“They distribute food, and with it is the poison of hatred and mistrust of a government that is ceaseless and faithful in its service to the Filipino people. It is simply not fair and in the defense of our people and our state it must be corrected, ”Parlade said in a statement on Tuesday.
Al Jazeera asked Parlade for further comment, but did not immediately respond to the question.
Although the general has yet to show evidence for his claims, government social media platforms have carried his statements. The local police unit that covers the pantry of the community of Non subsequently posted a warning on its social media pages claiming that the organizers had ties to the banned Communist Party of the Philippines. The message has since been deleted.
The government’s response to citizen action quickly aroused fear among the organizers, who feared for their lives. Non was forced to briefly suspend her project out of fear for her safety and that of her fellow volunteers.
The Duterte administration has lobbied to end the five-decade-old armed Communist uprising in the country, and the Parlade office has prosecuted groups and figures it perceives as Communist sympathizers.
Echoing Duterte’s murderous ‘war on drugs’, the anti-Communist campaign, also known as the ‘red marking’, has seen dozens of activists and human rights lawyers killed in vigilante-type attacks in the country. over the past two years.
Although Duterte presented himself as pro-Communist when he campaigned for the presidency in 2016, he has since opposed the Communist Party and other left-wing groups, following unsuccessful attempts at peace negotiations. .
Duterte’s government now considers the Communist Party a “terrorist organization”, and a new law condemns supporters of these groups as “terrorists” as well.
“In all honesty, I have no connection with the Communist Party. I’m sorry, but this question is so malicious, ”No said when asked to comment on Parlade’s claims.
“I said I am disappointed with the [government’s] reply. That is true. I know the government is working, but in my opinion it is failing because people will not stand in line for that long if they get enough support, ”she added.
“Why put on nastiness?
No and several other community pantry organizers said they were approached and questioned by police, some carrying guns.
Police also came to the Dimanlig community pantry on Tuesday, asking for details of its organizers. Fearing that she would also be monitored, Dimanlig phoned her local police chief, who told her they only wanted to make sure health protocols were being followed and that they were not profiling her.
Outraged by the government’s response, many Filipinos voiced their support for No and the community pantry movement on social media. They criticized the government for standing in the way of a good thing.
Manhit said he finds the accusation of communist links laughable, as the community’s pantries are in the open, and so far there has been no evidence of illegal activity.
“Why put mischief in it?” When you do not violate any law of the land, whatever your political ideology, you are protected by your rights as a Filipino citizen, enshrined in our constitution, ”said Manhit.
Zena Bernardo, Non’s mother, said she saw the government’s reaction coming. An activist herself, Bernardo had an argument with the police in May 2020 when they organized a community kitchen. Police stopped their volunteers because their truck carried a sign with a message critical of the government.
Bernardo said cracking down on community pantries could discourage people from trying to help their communities.
“Don’t bother to help because they might suspect you are a rebel or a terrorist,” Bernardo told Al Jazeera. “Does that mean kindness is now an act of terrorism?”
– Investigator (@inquirerdotnet) April 22, 2021
“ Kindness is everyone’s color ”
The tide has since turned for non-community and community pantries after statements by the anti-communist task force backfired.
A group of senators rose to defend No and offered to postpone the anti-Communist task force, which received a budget equivalent to $ 390 million this year.
Duterte’s office, which previously praised the community’s pantries, distanced itself from Parlade’s statements and said it would warn the general against clumsy statements.
“Kindness is everyone’s color. Whatever our beliefs, if they sincerely help others, we will support them, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement.
Non has reopened its community pantry, with more vendors and displaced business owners offering to help. She said it will remain open as long as the donations continue to arrive.
The same goes for the Dimanlig community pantry.
“It promotes kindness. It promotes the idea that you are meant to be responsible for your fellow human beings, especially now, ”she said.