Ma. Rhea Gretchen Abuso
Chair at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Xavier University, Philippines firstname.lastname@example.org
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) declares that poverty is an urgent human rights issue. Poverty simply renders basic human rights out of reach for people living in poverty. And as every country today grapples with the impact of COVID 19, poverty is the biggest hindrance for many governments in enforcing social quarantine measures. Social distancing is just impossible for the urban poor who live in cramped spaces and rely on mass transportation to earn a living. Consider that low income families could barely get by and live hand-to-mouth when the economy was open, how much more now? This is the grim reality for 18 million families in the Philippines.
To “mitigate the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 health crisis and the Enhanced Community Quarantine guidelines”, the Philippine government rolled out its Social Amelioration Package to provide cash aid to 18 million poor families in the country. While this is a much needed relief for many Filipinos no longer able to support themselves, increasing discontent from the middle class who feel excluded began to creep into online discussions. Cash aid was also criticized as encouraging, even rewarding, mendicancy among the poor. A more sinister disease is taking hold in Philippine society, one that will remain long before the world finds a cure for COVID 19: what sociologist Jayeel Cornelio calls “The persistence of blaming the poor”. The vilification of vulnerable population for receiving aid is creating a social conflict that pits the middle class against the “poorest of the poor”. This piece is my attempt to explain the societal dimension of the desperation and hunger that reverberates in every poor household in the Philippines.
As a sociologist, I am inclined to discuss this issue using the classic sociological concept of class struggle introduced by Karl Marx almost 200 years ago. Class struggle is the conflict between segments of society over valued resources. Marx explains that an economic system dominated by capitalists (think Forbes list of richest Filipinos) rely on a large poor and exploited population called proletariat to make profit for their businesses. It is in the best interest of capitalists to keep the majority of Filipinos poor, uneducated and with no choice but to accept wages that could not even afford them the product of their daily labor. This system that deifies rich capitalists and disparages the poor have kept generations of Filipino bourgeoisie on top of those top richest list.
However, this exploitative system does not enrage most Filipinos at all. When the entire island of Luzon was placed on lockdown, thousands of people still endured the long queues at checkpoints and braved the streets of Manila hoping to earn the meager income they can to feed their families. They were quickly disparaged as undisciplined and irresponsible. Explaining social problems such as poverty, unemployment and homelessness as shortcomings of individuals rather than as a fundamental flaw of society is what Marx calls false consciousness. In his time, Marx pleaded for people to recognize the real and more persistent social problem: society’s predilection to demonize the poor for their inability to protect themselves from a cruel and exploitative social system.
I have spent much of my time as a sociology teacher urging my students to see the societal dimension of poverty and I make the same appeal here. The poor desperately needs the support of the government and society at large to survive the pandemic. Vilifying them for defying the quarantine orders and in receiving aid only worsens the problem. In this difficult time, poor families simply cannot survive on their own. As we come out of this crisis, my hope is that we not only emerge healthier and stronger but that we become more compassionate and humane individuals. All of us have a role play and a responsibility to take in caring for each other’s wellbeing.
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Cornelio, Jayeel Serrano. 2017. “Why Poverty Is Not a Choice.” Rappler. Retrieved April 11, 2020 (https://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/167915-poverty-not-a-choice).
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