Recent Posts

Breaking News

THE HUNGER GAMES

By Johannes L. Chua

the hunger games featured image

If you want to sleep peacefully at night, please do not read this story.

If you, like me, are somewhat anxious and feeling a certain uncertainty, then read on. Again, this is not some fluff piece on how inspiring and resilient we are as long as we hold our hands and sing. Reality bites. And it bites to the core.

It started last March 16, the Monday before the lockdown was implemented. I had to hastily meet the three dozen workers of the businesses I own and co-own. All my businesses—restobars, drinking joints, and an unli-wings outlet—have to close down as they are not considered “essentials” (though I disagree—everybody needs solitary drinking at this time). Salaries were given, income from the service charge was distributed, and some marinated chicken wings were shared among the workers to take home.

I remembered telling everyone that it was just a temporary setback. We can survive two weeks, I said. This quarantine is “nothing.”

Prior to 2020, all my businesses did well, especially during the holidays. The Taal eruption in January affected us quite a bit and brought sales down, but we still survived.

I was hopeful that we would weather this crisis. I learned later that hopeful, not sorry, seemed to be the hardest word.

Two weeks into the quarantine, everything seemed like a smooth-sailing journey. My workers, through our group chat, shared what they were doing in the provinces. One was in Quezon, another in Bataan, in Rizal, while one was in Nueva Vizcaya. What I saw every morning were photos of nature scenes, beaches, sunsets, and clouds. I always saw the comment “sana all” or a happy emoji.

When two weeks passed, entering Lent, and with announcement that the lockdown was extended until April 30, moods started to change. I noticed that it started with a single message.

“Sir, ok lang po ba? (Sir, is it okay?)”

It was vague. It came from my cook Rey, 50 years old.

I replied: “Anong ok (What’s okay)?”

Wala na po kami makain, sir (We don’t have anything to eat, sir),” he responded. I immediately remembered his four kids, the youngest at eight and the oldest, a 16-year-old lanky boy.

I hesitated at first, because Rey, who has been with me for three years, is the silent type. He has never bothered me with any personal requests. This time, however, it was a different tune.

I wanted to reply—“Did you go to your barangay? Did the DSWD help you already? What about your mayor?” But I held back. I imagined myself in his place—the head of a family, swallowing pride, to ask for food.

I called him. On the other line, all I understood was help was not arriving in his place. He lined up at barangay hall, confronted their barangay captain, and went to various offices, but nothing arrived, not even a grain of rice.

And I could hear him, not sobbing, but wailing.

I couldn’t recall his exact words after that phone conversation, all I could remember was his wail, which played in my mind again and again, in a loop.

The call was like an avalanche that broke the dam. Sunny pictures from Polillo Island in Quezon, where Jonas was quarantined with his parents, turned bleak. This is all what we can eat day in and day out, he says in a photo showing lato (sea grapes) and snails. He doesn’t have the money to purchase meat or canned goods. They are beside the sea and the nearest forest to pick vegetables is a three-hour trek away.

Another worker, a waiter named Hector, replied: “Buti ka pa, may nakakain (Good for you, you still have something to eat).” I learned that Hector wasn’t able to go back to Zamboanga where his sister resides. He was holed up in an old apartment in Malate and surviving only with one meal a day—a piece (not a can) of sardine and rice.

I remember one line in my conversation with Hector: “King puede lang magnakaw, ginawa ko na (If stealing were only allowed, I would have done it).”

Soon, the friendly banter and hearty conversations in the chat group turned into stories of woe, with hints of anger and a dash of despair. Selfies with nature turned into photos showing them gaunt and famished, with Jonas visibly losing weight.

I found out that another cook, Gerry, was also in the same predicament as Rey. Gerry has three young daughters. Even once, he was not able to receive any form of relief. Ditto with Danny, who has a seven-month pregnant wife carrying their first child.

“Sir, nag-aalala po ako sa asawa ko. Malnourished na po ata kasi maitim na ang ilalim ng mata (Sir, I’m worried about my wife. I think she is malnourished because there are dark circles under her eyes),” Danny said, adding that he didn’t have any money to buy the pain ointment his wife needed. I could not even advise him to go to the nearest health center or hospital.

Then I found out about Bong, who is offering his “services” to a matrona just to sustain his young family, about Mike who had to sell vegetables along the road to feed his eight siblings (he is the breadwinner), about Laurence who would sneak to drive his pedicab illegally so he and his daughter could eat something.

And the list went on, all these people pushed to the edge, who would do anything to put food on their family’s table.

My workers have names. They are not lazy people and they are not “pasaway” as some refer to them or people like them on social media. Yes, there are the rotten ones, such as those who will use the money to play sabong or bingo, but I know my workers are a hard-working bunch.

Circumstances in life, whatever that may be, was not that kind to them compared to us (or to me) who can read this piece in peace. They know that this quarantine is necessary to fight Covid-19, but how can they ignore the grumbling stomachs of their loved ones?

A silver lining, at first, was the Labor Department’s cash assistance for displaced workers. I made sure to follow and submit all the requirements. Everyone was hopeful that they would receive the P5,000 assistance.

Sad to say, after repeated follow-ups, calls, and online messages, I have not received any response. I read in the news today (April 16) that DOLE announced it has “insufficient funds.” One of my workers quipped: “Aanhin pa ang damo, kung patay na ang kabayo. Pero mas malala ang damong paasa (What good is the grass be if the horse is already dead? What’s worse is if the grass is only wishful thinking).”

We were hopeful, but hope—as I mentioned earlier—seems to be a hard word to swallow, considering they hadn’t received any form of help from the barangay, city hall, or the national government.

I just want to believe that the government has helped a lot of people (except my workers), but the numbers are just too overwhelming.

When two weeks passed, entering Lent, and with announcement that the lockdown was extended until April 30, moods started to change.

After Rey’s request, I found myself lining up for an hour in a pawnshop (that doubles as a remittance center). I sent money to all my workers and, to some of them, I sent additional grocery items I purchased at a sari-sari store near my home. Soon, I was inundated with messages from their kapitbahay, kamag-anak, at kapatid (neighbors, relatives, and siblings) asking for any amount of financial assistance—to buy medicines, to buy rice, for dialysis, for the kids’ milk.

Desperation knows no “boundaries” and starts with “sir, kakapalan ko na mukha ko (Sir, I’ll muster the courage)…” And some of them invoke the name of God.

With DOLE or DSWD assistance now far from their reach, what would happen? What if the lockdown is extended for another month? What if Covid-19 persists and we can’t fully “normalize” this year?

Financial loss—that’s a given this year. I may not recover my investments and have to close some of my businesses. I have accepted my fate. I read somewhere that “no one can perch in their ivory tower watching the devastation.”

I now even feel guilty opening the door of our shameless refrigerator brimming with food, juices, fruits, vegetables, and different flavors of ice cream.

As I try to sleep at dawn, I’m kept awake as I recall the wail of a father beaten black and blue. It rings in my head amid the silence, like a Youtube video on repeat, looping and looping without consideration of time and space.

I wake up the next day to messages of people asking for help. Questions abound in my head—Should I help them? I have already helped my workers, isn’t it enough? Are they fooling me and taking advantage? Am I just feeling guilty? Or am I just feeling cabin fever?

It is “assuming” of me to know the real feeling of the pain and hunger of my workers—or anyone like them in the same situation?

Covid-19 is a real threat and we should really stay at home, but what if you are in the place of Rey, Gerry, or Danny? What would you have done? I have more questions without answers.



Source: Manila Bulletin ( https://lifestyle.mb.com.ph/2020/04/17/the-hunger-games/)

No comments