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People wearing masks shop at outdoor food stalls
Masked people shop at outdoor food stalls in ManilaImage: Aaron Favila/AP Photo/picture alliance
PoliticsAsia

COVID: Police harassment threatens Philippine food pantries

Ana P. Santos
April 27, 2021

Military surveillance and labeling of food donation stalls as communist recruitment centers have caused many to close. The pantries are a response to a growing hunger problem during the latest coronavirus lockdown.

https://p.dw.com/p/3sdP0

Military surveillance and police harassment are threatening to disrupt a citizen initiative to set up makeshift food donation stalls meant to soften the economic blow of lockdown measures as the Philippines grapples with a new surge in coronavirus infections.

Ana Patricia Non ceased operations of the community pantry she opened in her neighborhood on Tuesday, after local police shared a Facebook post linking community pantries to communist recruitment efforts.

The post was also shared by the National Task Force to End Local Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), the government's anti-insurgency unit.

Around the same time, police also visited Non's pantry, asking for her phone number and personal information.

Inspired by Non's efforts, which went viral on social media, community pantries began sprouting up across the Philippines as a citizen response to delayed government aid following the declaration of another stringent lockdown.

To date, there are more than 350 community pantries in the country.

According to the government, only 4 billion Philippine pesos (€68 million) of the 23 billion-peso budget for government cash aid had been distributed.

The Philippines is struggling to contain the second-worst COVID outbreak in Southeast Asia, with close to a million cases and more than 16,000 deaths recorded since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, vaccination efforts have not been able to keep pace with the spike in infections and the spread of new and more transmissible variants.

The government tightened quarantine restrictions in the economic hub of Manila earlier this month, as hospitals overflowed to maximum capacity. Reports told of one man dying while isolating in his car, while others died in hospital waiting rooms.

The government has estimated the economic loss of quarantine restrictions to be at 83 billion pesos (€1.4 billion).

Anti-insurgency witch hunt

Carlos Conde, a senior Human Rights Watch researcher, called the allegations linking community pantries to communist insurgency "outrageous."

"There is a poverty of analysis here on the part of the military in their move to lump together communist insurgency with a purely civic action by citizens who only want to help," Conde told DW.

Conde further warned of the normalization of widening attacks on civil liberties and the shrinking democratic space for legitimate consent. 

"This could possibly turn into a witch hunt, which is extremely dangerous, considering those who have been killed because of red-tagging. This is a counterinsurgency campaign that has gone amok," he said.

On Wednesday, the organizers of a community pantry in the southern Philippine province of Cagayan de Oro also announced that they were closing their pantry after anti-communist leaflets with images of the volunteers were circulated online.

Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Office called for an investigation into police-military operations that resulted in the killing of nine activists who had been red-tagged or accused of fronting for the armed wing of the Communist party. 

Human rights lawyer Maria Sol Taule called out the government's failed pandemic response, corruption, and militaristic solutions as the root cause of the sudden emergence of the pantries.

"The government will gain nothing [from red-tagging], but will further isolate the people it has long neglected," Taule told DW.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque downplayed the criticism, telling reporters in a virtual press conference, "I don't see it as a condemnation of the government… as we continue to give aid."

A struggle to put food on the table

Community pantries have helped people like Rodolfo Dimaano, 48, put food on the table for their families.

Dimaano is one of the 4 million Filipinos unemployed as a result of the pandemic. Dimaano used to drive a motorized sidecar, which is a popular form of public transportation, but when the first lockdown was declared last year, Dimaano saw his $10 (€8) in daily earnings disappear overnight.

The $350 in government assistance he received last year, and $100 that he recently received, have helped but have proved to be sorely insufficient. "With lockdown restrictions changing for over a year now, our livelihoods are so uncertain," Dimaano told DW.

Dimaano and his wife Teresa are among the volunteers who repack and organize food donations in their community pantry.

"It makes me happy to help in the same way that I have been helped," Dimaano said.

The outpouring of solidarity also inspired volunteer Herbie Docena and his friends to start a community pantry in their neighborhood last Saturday. Lines swelled to over 500 people, when operations at the neighborhood's pioneer pantry were temporarily suspended.

However, police had also questioned Docena about his motivations for starting the pantry. "The officers were very polite, but nonetheless, we are concerned about this form of intimidation," Docena told DW. "But it will not stop us. There are so many people who are going hungry and there are many people who want to help."

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