What ‘relief’ for the poor should really look like

Aid handouts for poor communities allow them to just barely survive. This has to change.

Some stranded and homeless Filipinos prepare dinner as they take shelter along Manila Bay following the announcement of a lockdown in Manila, the Philippines in April 2020 [File: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

A typical relief pack in the Philippines consists of a few kilos of rice, canned sardines, instant noodles, sachets of instant coffee, and a pack of sugar. Colloquially known as “relief goods”, food packs are distributed to poor and low-income households in times of disaster. They serve as immediate aid, a stop-gap measure; but for the poor, they are a lifeline until “normalcy” – a return to familiar rhythms of precarity – is restored. 

Since President Rodrigo Duterte placed Metro Manila under “community quarantine” on March 12, and expanded this measure four days later to encompass the island group of Luzon, millions of relief packs have been distributed by state agencies, local governments, companies, non-government organisations, and individuals.

Yet their contents do not vary substantially; and the fact that they do not is telling of how both government and citizens value the needs of the poor and understand what is essential to survival. 

Relief goods do not give relief, but rather offer the barest minimum of subsistence. Even then, what the state and private donors deem rudimentary is deficient, because hardly any thoughtful consideration is given to recipients’ needs. For instance, a typical relief pack does not allow families to cook, let alone prepare nutritious meals since basic pantry items and fresh produce are not included. Sacks of rice and bags of vegetables are more the exception than the rule.

Instead of asking what people need, we assume that we already know. Such mindless generosity conveys that the disaster-stricken should subsist on meagre allocations. Relief packs distributed to the hardest-hit and the worst-off are a metaphor for classed understandings and attributions of human dignity. They illuminate prevailing practices of care and explain the inadequacy and indignity of state responses to crises that trap the poor in cycles of deeper poverty and precarity.

Mismanaging a pandemic

After months of downplaying the coronavirus outbreak, Duterte eventually imposed a lockdown of Metro Manila, quickly deploying police and military to enforce immediate compliance. This militarised response proceeds from the government’s view of the pandemic as a national security issue rather than a public health emergency. It reinforces the administration’s law-and-order approach to governance and the president’s obsession with framing every crisis situation as a “war”.

In the span of two weeks, a state of calamity was declared and presidential emergency powers were granted to authorise the realignment of funds for governing a crisis that was fast becoming a catastrophe. While this has adversely affected the entire population, the lockdown has without a doubt disproportionately aggravated poor and low-income people. 

Livelihood, mobility, housing, nutrition, sanitation, and healthcare have become especially precarious for socially vulnerable groups. As work was suspended, casual and contractual jobs were lost to termination or subjected to flexible work arrangements with reduced pay.

Daily wage earners under a “no work, no pay” scheme, and underpaid essential workers were left to walk long distances or made to endure perilous commutes on board crowded trucks, as mobility was severely crippled by the public transport shutdown, ban on domestic travel, and proliferation of checkpoints.

One migrant worker, for example, walked some 400km in five days, journeying from Muntinlupa, a city in Metro Manila, to his hometown in Camarines Sur, a province in southern Luzon. 

Amid exhortations to self-isolate at home and observe physical distancing, stranded workers were admonished by government officials to find temporary accommodation to house them for the duration of the quarantine. Informal settlers and the homeless found themselves not only at a greater risk of contracting the virus but also in violation of strict directives by dint of their dense living conditions. Violators were punished, beaten up, arrested, ordered shot, or killed outright.

Without income and savings, or the freedom to ply a trade and find ways to put food on the table, people were made to depend on unreliable rations of insufficient relief goods. Until the lockdown, access to food has never been so insecure and prohibitive, and demanding food aid has never been so dangerous. In the absence of adequate water and sanitation infrastructure in urban poor settlements, appeals for frequent handwashing rang hollow. Pumps of hand sanitiser in village checkpoints replaced communal wash stations vital to practising good hygiene. 

Starving and barely able to survive, the poor have struggled to keep themselves safe and healthy. As hospitals scrambled to manage the chaos from an overload of patients and severe shortage in essential equipment and personnel, the poor’s already diminished access to healthcare dwindled further.

In Manila, no other social group has been as terribly disadvantaged by the pandemic and the state’s botched responses to it than the urban underclass.

Reproducing urban inequalities

Locking down Metro Manila has aggravated and reproduced urban inequalities. National and local governments have failed to translate critical but untenable recommendations of home quarantine and physical distancing into viable action plans that understand informal settlements first, as built into the urban fabric, and then as vectors of transmission, and so require prioritising their inhabitants as an at-risk population rather than disciplining them.

This colossal mistake underlies a failure to recognise that extraordinary emergencies exceptionally hurt socially vulnerable groups and so urgently demand extraordinary responses centred on social justice.

But while these failures point to incompetence in governance, the finer point is that they radically expose deep flaws embedded in social structures. Reckless and inept responses to exceptional circumstances reveal fundamental gaps in the way our institutions and systems are organised and actually function, which in normal times already fail spectacularly to address social needs.

It is this very impotence and deficiency that mobilise and necessitate civic action. Yet, collective efforts will remain insufficient and unsustainable not only because resources and capacities are limited, but also because citizen interventions are meant to supplement rather than fill the gaps and repair the failures of government.

Unreflexive, unempathetic, and exclusionary practices of care

Nonetheless, the inadequacy of cultures of provisioning, whether public or private, owes more to deficits in practices of care. The way we exercise care as a society is unreflexive, unempathetic, and exclusionary. 

It is unreflexive because it defaults to templates of giving which proceed from unexamined assumptions of what the poor need. It is unempathetic because it displays a lack of curiosity about and conveys disinterest in understanding their needs. It is exclusionary because it discriminates with requirements, qualifications, and conditionalities. 

That we think in terms of what the poor need to survive rather than what they need to live, indicates a concern for mere survival rather than life. This preoccupation with getting by rather than what French philosopher Michel Foucault terms “making live” suggests an impoverished political imagination that can only hope for the poor to survive rather than thrive.

Narrow ideas of what people deserve materialise in the quality of help that is extended: in the selection of items included in the bags of aid that are distributed, in the amount of cash assistance that is allocated, or in the quality of accommodation provided. Regardless of intention, efforts therefore remain unresponsive to what people truly need, and as such fail to give relief. 

A radical reimagination of care

Impoverished practices of care are rooted in embedded classed understandings and differential attributions of human dignity. They originate in the undignified view of the poor as people who matter less and therefore deserve less.

This idea informs beliefs that their needs are rudimentary, that substandard state welfare is acceptable, that shoddy generosity is unobjectionable, and that a life of deprivation excuses mediocre provisioning. The mentality that beggars cannot be choosers undergirds and characterises how Filipinos practise care as a society. 

Correcting this requires a critical examination of how we regard and relate to the poor. A radical change in perspective encourages the development of a political imagination animated by the flourishing of life.

It is a quality of mind that militates against mere survival, questions celebrations of resilience, and transgresses what is permissible and desirable.

It demands more than what we are accustomed to giving and receiving. It requires distributing relief packs teeming with pantry staples, nutritious food items, fresh produce, toiletries, as well as health and hygiene essentials. It entails repurposing hotels to shelter and sustain shack dwellers and the homeless; guaranteeing hazard pay to uncounted essential workers; and providing direct and adequate financial assistance to poor and low-income households.

A political imagination insists on the radical. More than enacting unprecedented emergency measures, it demands a people-centred restructuring of healthcare, housing, and social protection systems to disrupt conditions that produce and reproduce urban marginality.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.