COVID-19: UN and humanitarian partners lending a hand to the most vulnerable Filipinos
Op-ed by Gustavo Gonzalez, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator
The COVID-19 pandemic is set to trigger the deepest global recession since World War II and could push up to 100 million to the point of extreme poverty. Recent estimates suggest up to 6,000 children could die every day from preventable causes due to the impact the virus is having on delivery of immunization and other basic services.
The wider impact is also evident here in the Philippines. In addition to the tragic loss of more than 1,600 lives, sources of income have plummeted and livelihoods lost. As always, it is the poor and those groups already suffering from violence, stigma, discrimination and inequality, who have borne the brunt of this new crisis. Previously healthy economic growth has been reversed, with the Asian Development Bank forecasting an unprecedented contraction of 3.8 percent this year. And such projections may yet worsen.
Unless we act decisively and act now, we should be prepared for a level of human suffering more brutal and destructive than the direct health consequences of the pandemic alone. The imperative is for a comprehensive response, one that addresses the wider health, economic and social consequences, including human and physical security, and protects the poorest and most vulnerable communities.
The Government of the Philippines took swift and decisive action in responding and mitigating the spread of COVID-19, boosting the diagnostic and clinical capacity of the health system, getting the message out on we can protect ourselves and our loved ones, and boosting capacity to track and trace contacts and establish isolation facilities for returning overseas workers. The Government is commended for continuing its positive engagement with the World Health Organization and for being open to learning from global experience and drawing on international expertise.
Although Philippines has significant resources to draw upon, the challenges of sustaining a multi-sector response are immense, not least in terms of reaching the most vulnerable and ensuring no one is left behind. As a country also beset by natural hazards, we shouldn’t forget that in the context of COVID-19, a major typhoon or earthquake in the coming months, when government services are already at maximum capacity, could prove a dangerous tipping point.
Significant secondary impacts of the coronavirus will have deep economic implications, evidence of which is seen in the increasing return of migrant workers from overseas. Since February, over 142,000 have so far returned and up to 300,000 are expected to come home before the end of the year, signaling a dramatic change in circumstances for millions of families throughout the country who rely on remittances from their loved ones employed overseas. The anticipated dip in remittance flows, representing some 10 per cent of national GDP, will undoubtedly increase the fragility of communities in rural areas of the country, and especially Mindanao.
After decades of conflict in Mindanao, the establishment of the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority last year was a historic moment, but the so called normalization process remains fragile and there are over 350,000 people that remain displaced in Mindanao, due to conflict and natural disasters. It is in places like this that the poorest, most vulnerable Filipinos are to be found. The threat of COVID-19 only makes matters worse.
One of the most insidious consequences of the pandemic is the rise of gender-based violence (GBV). Worsening gender bias and gender inequality manifests in women’s increased care work and increased responsibilities in community engagement and volunteerism. Several other especially vulnerable population groups, such as older people, LGBTI people, persons with disabilities, children and adolescents, particularly girls, are confronted with violence and abuse, as a result of prolonged lockdowns
The pandemic continues to affect the country’s education sector as figures from the Department of Education indicate that about 19.1 million public school students and 1.5 million private school students have registered in the next school year, significantly less than 27 million from last year. The key reason being that many families affected by the economic downturn are unable to enroll their children or afford the accompanying costs of shifting to a blended learning mode.
COVID-19 restrictions in the Philippines have made family planning services unreachable and overwhelmed and could result in its highest birth rate in the last 20 years. Together with the Department of Health and other government agencies, the humanitarian partners are helping to maintain sexual and reproductive health and family planning services, including the protection of health workers. But more is needed. And urgently.
As a friend and strategic partner, the United Nations in the Philippines and its humanitarian partners are contributing to the safety and well-being of the Filipino people by making a value-added contribution to the Government’s response, one that emphasizes a collaborative approach, bringing humanitarian response together with a broader recovery, socioeconomic and peacebuilding framework.
The July revision of the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) COVID-19 Response Plan is focused on providing critical health interventions and multi-sectoral humanitarian assistance to the 5.4 million poorest and most marginalized Filipinos living in epidemic hotspots, particularly those in poor, densely populated urban settings, and especially focusing on the safety and wellbeing of women and girls.
With financial requirements of $122 million, this is the largest international response plan by the humanitarian community based in the Philippines since Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in 2013. The Philippines has also been included in the Global Humanitarian Response Plan, with a total of $10.3 billion, the largest in history, bringing together the response plans of 63 of the hardest hit and most vulnerable countries.
The activities represent a collective effort of almost 50 country-based UN and non-governmental partners. FAO, IOM, UNDP, UNFPA, UN-Habitat, UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, WHO, OCHA, national and international NGOs and their networks, faith-based organizations, the private sector and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have all stepped up their response to address the most urgent humanitarian health, protection and socioeconomic needs caused by the pandemic. The HCT response plan focuses on supporting the government in addressing the most immediate challenges relating to health, food security, water and sanitation, protection as well as risk communication, among others. Interventions are tailored to the middle-income economy context, characterized by persistent inequality, marginalized communities and displacement driven by natural hazards and conflict.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the second half of 2020, it is clear this is not only a health emergency but also a human crisis; a humanitarian, economic and development crisis which requires the most effective and coordinated use of existing funding and partnership mechanisms. The HCT response plan offers the international community with a key opportunity to demonstrate solidarity and generosity with the Philippines by supporting a large platform of humanitarian partners.
This crisis is also a unique opportunity to address the inequalities and injustices exposed by the pandemic, and to strengthen our collective efforts to building forward better for a more sustainable, resilient, gender-equal and carbon-neutral future, instead of returning to systems that have proven unsustainable, inequitable and harmful. There can be light at the end of this dark tunnel.