MANILA (AFP) – Daniel Auminto lost his job and his home when the COVID-19 pandemic sent the Philippines into a lockdown. Now he and his family live on the streets, relying on food handouts to survive.
Charities are struggling to meet the ever-growing demand for food as millions of families go hungry across the country.
COVID-19 restrictions have crippled the economy and thrown many out of work.
“I have never seen hunger at this level before,” said Executive Director Jomar Fleras of the Rise Against Hunger, an organisation that works with more than 40 partners to feed the less fortunate. “If you go out there everybody will tell you that they’re more afraid of dying from hunger than dying from COVID. They don’t care about COVID anymore.”
The number of people going hungry has reached a record high during the pandemic, according to pollster Social Weather Stations.
Nearly one-third of families – or 7.6 million households – did not have enough food to eat at least once in the last three months, its September survey showed.
Among them, 2.2 million families were experiencing “severe hunger” – the highest ever recorded.
The numbers have been climbing up since May, two months after the country went into a severe lockdown – reversing a downward trend since 2012.
Virus restrictions have been eased in recent months to allow more businesses to operate as the government seeks to revive the devastated economy, which is expected to shrink up to 9.5 percent this year.
For the country’s legions of poor, the pandemic is just another challenge in their lives – and not even the most serious.
Auminto, 41, spent years sleeping on the streets and eking out a meager living by selling trash for recycling. His fortunes changed in 2019 when he found stable work as a building painter.
That gave him enough money to rent a room in Manila, which he shared with his wife and their two-year-old daughter, buy food and even save a little towards their dream of opening a small store. Then COVID-19 struck.
“We lost our home, my job. We even lost our clothes which were stolen from us,” said Auminto as he sat in a park where the family sleeps on a flattened cardboard box at night.
Before the pandemic, “I planned to work and work our way out of poverty. It’s for my family, so I can give them a better life, send my child to school.”
Every day they join long queues of mostly homeless people to receive a free meal from an outdoor food pantry.
On some days the family gets two meals from different pantries; other days it is just one. Sometimes they have no food at all.
Five days a week volunteers at a centre in Manila run by the Roman Catholic Order Society of the Divine Word prepare around a thousand meals of chicken, vegetables and rice that are packed into boxes and given to the hungry.
“Demand is constantly increasing,” said Father Flavie Villanueva, who runs the programme.
“We started doing this in April and began with 250 (people lining up). It increased to 400, and then 600, then 800. Three weeks ago it was 1,000,” Villanueva said.
“The majority are still homeless but there’s a good number who are with homes but are desperate because there are no jobs.”
Hunger was already a major problem in the Philippines before the pandemic struck.
About 59 million people were “moderately or severely food insecure” between 2017 and 2019 – the highest in Southeast Asia – the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report.
The impact of the virus on hunger has been exacerbated by a series of typhoons that have pummeled the country in recent months, destroying tens of thousands of homes.
Fleras said food donations have soared during the pandemic, in part because many factories forced to suspend operations gave away their surplus stock. But it is not enough to meet demand.
“We might reach 200,000 families this year”, he said.
Auminto said it was “painful” to have lost everything and be back on the streets where he said the police treat them “like animals”.
“They should understand our situation, not treat us poorly,” he said.
They are suffering enough as it is.