The grass-roots action underlines the economic pain Filipinos are experiencing as they battle one of Southeast Asia’s worst coronavirus outbreaks and a harsh lockdown. Critics of President Rodrigo Duterte have pointed to the pantries as evidence of desperation as people take matters into their own hands — demonstrating “bayanihan,” the spirit of solidarity — because of insufficient government assistance.
The idea began when a small-business owner teamed up with local vegetable vendors and farmers who offered their produce to those in need. Within days, it grew into a multi-sector effort encompassing a variety of food and essential items — bread, eggs, fruit, rice, water, noodles — donated by rich and poor alike.
Jennifer Paradero, 43, who was among those in line on Wednesday, said her husband’s daily salary of $20 had been cut to less than half that since the pandemic began. She has only received cash aid from the government twice in the last year, amounting to less than $250, most of which went to paying a half-year’s worth of bills. The rest went to rice, which kept her family of six afloat for two weeks.
“This is a big help to my family,” she said of the pantry. “We’re really happy even if it’s only good for a few days.”
Nearby, volunteers sorted through boxes and piles of donations, while officers sent by the city government issued health protocol reminders on megaphones, making sure people stood three feet apart.
Almost 1 million coronavirus cases have been recorded in the Philippines and 16,000 people have died of covid-19. A surge in infections and deaths has taken hold this month, while the vast majority of residents remain unvaccinated.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said this week that he did not see the pantries as a “condemnation” of the government’s response. But he acknowledged that only a fraction of the promised $475 million in aid had been distributed to those in need, blaming pandemic disruption. “We’re avoiding the spread of the virus,” he said.
Though Duterte’s office at first welcomed the community initiative, local police and a national task force against communist rebels subsequently shared unsubstantiated claims made by others on social media that the pantries were affiliated with insurgents. These posts, shared on their official Facebook pages, accused the pantries of being a front for rebel recruitment.
On Tuesday, the pioneer pantry in Quezon City’s Maginhawa Street paused operations because of concerns about volunteers’ safety.
“If [people are] not sure of the intentions of the community pantry . . . I just invite you to go, listen and see for yourself, and to speak to the people there,” said Ana Patricia Non, the pantry’s founder. She said police officers had asked volunteers for her personal details, such as her phone number, address and relationship status.
“Between me and other people whose response fell short, I think I’m not the one who should be explaining myself,” Non added.
The practice of labeling individuals or groups as communist insurgents or terrorists — known as “red-tagging” — isn’t new to the Philippines, which has a long-running communist insurgency. But these attacks pose “a serious threat to civil society and freedom of expression,” the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a report last year. Duterte, who was once cozy with the left leading up to his election in 2016, has since attacked communists and called for them to be killed.
Ia Marañon, a volunteer at another community pantry in Quezon City, said two policemen dropped by the pop-up stand in the Loyola Heights neighborhood on Tuesday, carrying forms to collect the organizers’ personal data.
“We all felt like it was a threat of shutting us down,” she said.
Following public backlash, the Quezon City police apologized and said that it “does not and will never allow alleged red-tagging.” It added that it reminded its social media handlers “to be more circumspect and sensitive” in what they post.
Still, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict maintained that “communist groups are taking advantage of the Filipino bayanihan spirit.”
By Wednesday morning, Non was back at work, overseeing operations. Among the hundreds in line were a woman who scavenged and sold junk; a manicurist and mother of eight whose husband was arrested on drug charges; and a former housekeeper whose mother recently suffered a stroke.
“They have no hidden agenda. Their only goal is to get food,” Non said. “We don’t have a hidden agenda either. Our goal is to refill the pantry.”
In Loyola Heights, volunteers are considering establishing a soup kitchen or community garden.
“I guess the only thing that will stop us,” said Marañon, “is really if people stop giving to the pantry.”