Editor’s note: Ragene Andrea L. Palma is an urbanist. She is currently studying International Planning and Sustainable Development at the University of Westminster, London, as a Chevening scholar. The opinions in this essay are hers.
London (CNN Philippines Life) — Filipinos expressed outright rage following the president’s address to the nation about a community quarantine due to COVID-19. Some people on social media have been vigilant in pointing out how the military and police approaches echoed the martial law period during the 1970s, and demanded for accountability on public health funding and a clear, comprehensible plan.
In responding to queries about implementing the quarantine, exclusionary statements from the government were thrown out, such as how provincial workers in the metro should rent to cope with the situation (“Umupa muna sila para less ang movement ng tao.”) and how the informal sector should sell outside the cities (“I-encourage na lang natin sila na either mag-register sila or ‘don na lang sila sa lugar nanggagaling, ‘wag na pumasok sa Metro Manila.”).
These viewpoints are essentially problematic, showing an absence of a basic understanding of how people thrive in the city. People work in proximity to opportunity and need; in urban economics, location is key. People will move towards where they can survive. Distancing vendors from their market kills off their livelihood, and forcing workers to pay for rent is simply insensitive, given how affordable housing has been a national problem for decades.
Even social distancing, which is rightly encouraged to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, is a class issue. Implementing it in crowded cities such as Manila, the world’s “most densely populated city,” is a challenge. For the masses, simply living or moving means being beside other people. The “stay at home” campaign may apply to groups who have separate rooms within a house, but not so for those who share apartments and dormitories, multiple families who share a roof in slum dwellings, and least of all, the homeless and the urban poor who live on the streets. Spatial inequality, in itself, can exacerbate the spread of coronavirus.
Public transport, mobility
The lockdown, so far, has not grasped the concepts of movement and space, which are fundamentals in how urban areas function.
First, imposing the quarantine ahead of its implementation created an urban-rural exodus, and an exit to the global scale — out of necessity and fear of being stranded, workers flocked to bus stations, while OFWs scrambled to the airports. Checkpoints created barriers that choked the already constrained mobility. Queues to enter in and out of the metro’s borders resulted in the exact opposite of what social distancing was supposed to achieve; crowding has placed people shoulder-to-shoulder, with many desperately attempting to secure food and medicine. Provinces and cities outside Metro Manila have subsequently reported COVID-19 infection cases, and declared a state of calamity and lockdowns.
Second, the shutdown of public transport operations has led to the general public being stranded, without alternatives, while private vehicles are still allowed to travel, making it a “pure privilege” instead of a right. Like space, transport has become a luxury which many Filipinos could not afford. Workers continue to move because of economic necessities; many have a “no work, no pay” arrangement. While walking and cycling are recommended ways to move for at least three kilometers, and have worked for developed countries, this becomes a predicament; our urban infrastructure is designed to be car-centric, which only caters to the comfortable classes. Non-motorized transport has become a plight — an elderly citizen was forced to endure two hours of walking, carrying heavy plastic bags of food, while workers have been asked to run across quarantined borders while observed by the police. Even medical frontliners were not spared; doctors and nurses have also been stranded on the street, when they are urgently needed in hospitals.
Urban-rural, global, and economic linkages
With the metro-wide quarantine “enhanced” to cover the island of Luzon, the Interagency Task Force has directed that movement be “limited to accessing basic necessities,” while “provisions” for food and health services are to be “regulated.” A list of establishment types, covering food, medical centers and supplies, financial establishments, and critical services (power, telecommunication, and water) will be allowed to continue operations.
However, there are industries — many of them tied to the global economic chain — that support or forward linkages to the economic activities that will remain operational. These include trade, business, and tourism, and services, which are predicted to affect the country’s GDP the most. Additionally, at least 11 million workers in the informal sector of Luzon may be threatened by the enhanced quarantine.
The physical city: a troubled urban fabric and the public realm
Attributes of the physical space, particularly for a human scale, also have potential in addressing the response to the coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, these are almost always not acknowledged in Philippine planning, and are therefore not utilized.
Too many developments in cities are gated towers and subdivisions, which disconnect from surrounding street patterns, creating segregation instead of seamlessness in the urban fabric. Cities do not encourage or analyze housing typologies, which has led to overcrowding and risky, annexed stories in more organic areas. Public amenities such as seating, public restrooms, wash areas, and trash bins—all of which are very basic in urban design— contribute to health and sanitation, but are rarely present in our urban centres. Accessible, open spaces, which should function as a reprieve for the metro’s compact areas, are glaringly scarce.
The creative class and community bayanihan
The creative class—or in urban studies, a group of knowledge-based professionals that drives the innovation and progress of cities—has addressed the gaps which the government, so far, has failed to include in responding to COVID-19. Scientists immediately developed test kits. A team of chemists, engineers, and industrial designers designed an easy-build sanitation tent which local governments could use. Spatial analysts have created a case monitoring platform and an interactive map for checkpoints, providing data for the medical industry and the commuting public. A team of public health professionals created a self-assessment tool so people could check their symptoms at home. Linguists developed basic infographics and translated it to different Filipino languages. With the embarrassing hoarding by the middle and upper classes of basic supplies, a chemist mixed ethyl alcohol and distributed it for free, prioritizing vulnerable households.
Indeed, Filipino bayanihan sprouts from the most intimate scale of the urban movement: the community. Restaurant coffee shop owners provided food and drinks to exhausted medical frontliners in hospitals. Cycling advocates, among other concerned groups, have jumpstarted initiatives to distribute bikes to health workers, helping them get to the hospitals. Advocacy groups that work with urban poor communities have helped to procure basic needs.
Even in the most trying situation, when policies skew to the elite, or when urban infrastructure and other elements fail, the people, in their own capacity, create support systems that keep the life in the city.