By Bugan Ni-Rosipan

For the longest time, even before the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, we knew her as Manang Gulay. A little before noon every day except Sunday, there would be a shout at the gate, “gulay!!!!” (vegetables) – our midday equivalent of the nocturnal “balut!!!” (duck eggs) at ten in the evenings until the egg vendor decided to stay put in a corner with more foot traffic under a streetlight.    

And my mom or dad would hurry with a container for a quick rundown of the news of the day and Loring Munoz’s bulong-bulong (leafy vegetables) which she’d reserve for my dad, a fellow Ilocano. Loring aka Manang Gulay is 72 years old, who pushes her kariton (cart) supplying fresh vegetables to residents of the oldest, denser, less sleek communities in Makati along the Pasig river.

Like many workers in the informal sector and daily wage earners who did not fully grasp the implications of the public health emergency declaration on COVID-19, Loring only had the afternoon of 15 March to absorb the instructions from barangay officials. “Pinagbawalan ako magbenta ni kapitana. Lockdown, lockdown daw. Paano yun, e di walang kita?” (A barangay official said I will not be allowed to sell anymore because we’re going to be on lockdown. How can we survive then when we would not have any income?)

Like many itinerant vendors, generalized pronouncements from national officials didn’t help. She depended on free TV and her grown up brood to explain the guidelines from the COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), particularly the restriction on her vending.  Aside from the leftover veggies that she wasn’t able to sell, her family was not really able to prepare enough for the lockdown that extended for months.

Loring is one of the 15.68 million workers in the informal sector (2018 Informal Sector Survey) in the Philippines. Already vulnerable to economic shifts prior to COVID-19, the lockdown abruptly cut them off from their main sources of livelihood and without social insurance that could have temporarily staved off the full collapse of their income, their little savings got drained quickly.   

So when she saw a television news  helping clarify that food establishments were essential services and could operate under the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ], Loring plied the streets again but this time with a young neighbor pushing her cart.  

Though Manang Loring couldn’t venture out for a month, Aling Nene’s bakery, Aling Baby’s sari-sari store and Kamahalan’s talipapa (wet market, named so by villagers surreptitiously because it was “mahal” or expensive) stayed open from March 16 when the ECQ was first declared and throughout the lockdown on May 15. They helped our neighborhood of low middle income residents navigate unfamiliar empty streets, the uncertainty of food supply, and the fear of an unknown virus. They were familiar, routine and real, and they saved our lives and sanity.

By the second week of the lockdown, the bakery and sari-sari stores had set up plastic sheets to cover the frontages and protect sellers, most of whom were women, from possible COVID-19 infection. Buyers lined up a meter away from each other, all of them masked and wearing the laminated quarantine pass as IDs.  By 8 in the evening when the siren for the curfew sounded, all the stores shuttered quickly.    

I saw my friends’ social media posts about the long lines during their grocery runs only to find dwindling supplies and anti-hoarding limits even in the biggest stores. My family worried about fresh food supply and weren’t very excited about the prospect of canned goods. There was no question about patronizing Manang Loring, Aling Baby, Aling Nene and even Kamahalan though the supplies were tingi (in small packets) and marked up by P10 (around $.25) more.   

Being tingi, sourcing food from these neighborhood stores couldn’t securely refill the pantry longer than two days, and leave my family confident enough to check off the pandemic list that only had three items – food, food, meds. But since Loring and these stores can be relied on to be accessible and open as long as there is patronage from the community, tingi is enough for most families. I chewed on this choice to patronize local businesses for days until it bit – tangkilikan: that Tagalog word that means to carry each other, to build on community wealth.  In these times, we only have each other, after all.  

In June, the Philippine Statistics Authority put a dire figure to what every Filipino already knew: there were 7.3 million unemployed with the unemployment rate rising to 17.7 percent in April compared to 5.3% in January earlier this year. One by one, transport companies, airlines and tourism-dependent business announced massive lay-offs. All regions posted double-digit unemployment rates.   

I knew that if I bought from her and other neighborhood businesses, I put my own stake into the tangkilikan, and expand and sustain the employment network a wee bit more.”

“Ayaw na akong paikutin ng mga anak ko,” (My children told me not to go around selling vegetables anymore) Loring confesses, “kaya naman daw nila kahit papaano” (they can support our family themselves somehow). With all her children having their own families, it would have been easy to just hang her apron and put up her feet. But economically independent all her life though, and used to going out of her house, lockdown or not, the decision to continue selling didn’t need a rethinking.   

“Ayokong umasa, gusto ko may sariling pera sa bulsa ko” (I don’t want to beg or be dependent on anyone, I want to have my own money in my pocket), Loring affirms. From our gate and sale from various households as well as the random motorcycle rider who stops to buy half kilos of light leafy veggies, she hies to the end of her route, the generic pharmacy. Here she buys maintenance medicine for herself which she refused to say whichever for, only that she needed to take them daily.

Informal vendors only have less than five employees, many of whom are either unpaid family members or like the lad helping push her cart, neighbors. Though micro, their network is vast and, once added up, shows an expanded employment chain that provides a social protection cushion of sorts and income bridge to the many whose earnings were dramatically disrupted by the pandemic.

All of them practice tangkilikan.

Loring, for instance, pools money with other neighborhood vendors to hire another neighbor, a jeepney driver to purchase vegetables and other goods from a wholesale market. That’s food and meds for the driver and his family helping tide off the daily wages lost from the ban on public transport.  She also hires a porter at the market to help her haul the vegetables she bought. That’s food and meds for the porter and his family. 

Though she carries and piles the veggies on the cart herself, she hires a lad to push the cart around the neighborhood. That’s food and meds for the lad and his family. She prioritizes on sourcing and buying local vegetables. That’s food and meds for the local farmers and their families. 

I knew that if I bought from her and from other neighborhood businesses, I put my own stake into the tangkilikan, and expand and sustain the employment network a wee bit more.

Loring found the guideline disallowing seniors to go out of their houses because of the supposed higher risk of COVID-19 infection for the over 60 – restrictive and unfair. “Ang lalakas pa namin,” (We are still strong) she rues. “Alam naman namin ang ginagawa namin, kami ang may responsibilidad sa sarili namin,” (We know what we are doing and it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves) Loring adds.

I worry for her, too. She had a mask, sure, and a weird plastic bag she sometimes wore over her hair. She had signs on her cart asking people to physically distance themselves when buying. I wanted her to keep her routine and business.  I’ve asked myself if this was middle-class selfish because she allowed me to stay home while she herself was exposed.     

Based on the May 2020 estimates of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the global economic impact of the current pandemic could reach $5.8 to $8.8 trillion (about 6.4% to 9.7% of world’s gross domestic product or GDP).

According to an ASEAN report on the impacts of COVID-19, micro, small and medium size enterprises (MSMEs) employ 62% of the country’s workforce contributing to 36% of the total GDP.  With the quarantine measures causing massive layoffs and bankruptcies among MSMEs, unless good governance manages the further spread of COVID-19 and pulls off an economic recovery program focused on MSMEs, more than half of the Philippine workforce will be on its knees.  

For now though, to stave off a bleak future, Loring’s economic recovery program is to remain mindful and concentrate on just today.  “Takot magutom ang Pinoy, alisin mo na lahat, wag lang pagkain,” (Filipinos are afraid of being hunger. Take away everything except for food), she muses, intent on weighing a plump, odd-shaped squash.

“Eto muna,” (This is it for now) Manang Gulay says, smiling.

“Yan muna,” (It’s that for now), I agree. WWW