We are each other’s ‘bayani’: Fighting COVID-19 as one in the Philippines

It has been several weeks since the outbreak of Coronavirus reached the Philippines. It has not only given me time for myself, but it has made me come face-to-face with the level of privilege I’m afforded and how in times like this, people with privilege must step up to lift up those in the most marginalized and vulnerable situations. One such group are Internally Displaced Persons, especially women and mothers, living in the transitory sites in Sagonsongan, Lanao del Sur.

The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has reached all the major islands of the Philippines, even infiltrating through prison bars infecting jail inmates and personnel. Graduation rites were cancelled. Academic calendars were extended in some universities and others decided to cut their semester short  with students being mass promoted. The crisis shut down parks, movie theatres, malls, schools, and even workplaces. The entire Luzon island was put under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and other cities and municipalities outside Luzon followed suit. 

While currently stuck in my pad in Iligan City, I’ve started trying new recipes, enrolled myself in some online classes, and organized zoom catch-up sessions with my friends. It is a conscious effort to remind myself everyday that having the opportunity to stay at home and not go out amid this pandemic is a blessing and a privilege that I must be grateful for. Childish tantrums, like getting fed up with staring blankly at the walls of my room, pale in comparison to what those in the frontlines have had to sacrifice and the daily risks they face as they continue to work.

To me, this pandemic has highlighted the wide economic gap in our society. It has brought focus on how binge-watching Netflix or even having the time and resources to try new recipes are privileges not available to many Filipinos. Therefore, the acknowledgement of this privilege must be followed through by some sense of common humanity. This means asking the question, “If I have the means and the resources, how can I serve others? What can I do to provide small relief to those who’ve been burdened by this crisis? Perhaps this is the time to live the spirit of ‘bayanihan’ – of connecting with others, of helping, or going out our way to be there for those who need it. This is the time to be each other’s bayani. 

Bayanihan is a Filipino tradition where people offer help for people without expecting any reward in return. It’s from the word ‘bayan’ which means town, city, or nation. ‘Bayani’, on another hand, is defined in the Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala first published in 1754 and later translated by the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, to be ‘someone who is brave or valiant, someone who works toward a common task or cooperative endeavor (“bayanihan”)’. In a wonderfully put together description, being ‘bayani’ means centering one’s actions for and to the ‘bayan’. Thus, being a ‘bayani’ is not about doing something great to elevate oneself, but it is to do something positively meaningful for a greater good, for one’s community or one’s country. Every day there’s a call to do something meaningful for one’s community, but this pandemic has made the concept of ‘bayanihan’ even more relevant, if not necessary.

Outside the comforts of our homes, there are people who are forced to be outside, people who are heavily burdened by this crisis; those who lost their jobs; those who have been having difficulty finding sources of income amidst the crisis. These are the COVID-19 stories of the homeless, those who live hand-to-mouth, the Internally Displaced Persons, and those whose suffering are sometimes covered up by social media trends, fads, and craze. 

Dignity Kits for Women IDPs in Sagonsongan

To the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) currently being sheltered in transitory houses, this pandemic has posed greater hardships to them. These IDPs were forcibly displaced consequent to a terror attack of an ISIS-linked local terrorist group who took hold of their city, Marawi City, for 5 months in the year 2017. 

This will be the third Ramadan that Marawi IDPs will spend in transitory houses. In areas such as IDP communities, concerns of the impacts of COVID-19 is crucial given that physical distancing is not always possible, and access to basic needs is not always available. In Sagonsongan, Lanao del Sur where one of the camps is located, access to clean water remains a problem for an estimated 1000 families who have mostly have been living hand-to-mouth. 

This is why I’ve devoted the past few days of April to extend help to the women in Sagonsongan through a network I’m part of, The Young Women Leaders for Peace. The Young Women Leaders for Peace, a network of young women peace-builders, through the support of the Global Network of Women Peace Builders, have started providing hygiene kits for women IDPs in transitory houses in Sagonsongan. Inside every hygiene kit – which we call dignity kits – are sanitary napkins, bath soaps, washable masks, a dental kit, laundry soap, Multivitamins, Cotton buds, tissue paper, and pamphlets reminding mothers and young women about how they can keep themselves safe from getting infected with the COVID-19 virus. 

YWL-Ph believes that this initiative is important because we have observed that women’s needs, especially for sanitary products, are not often included in the relief packs being handed out both by the government and private sector. This is the same concern raised by Power in Her Story explaining how feminine hygiene kits are seldom prioritized in donation drives for the marginalized.  What we do is just a small initiative alongside the many inspiring initiatives around the world.  

Smiling behind the masks while packing the kits

Humanity is stronger than this pandemic

This initiative, and the thousand others around the Philippines and the world, has fortified my belief in our strong sense of common humanity. I am inspired by stories of former militants donating 100 sacks of Calamansi (Local lemon) to their local community. Private individuals have also stepped up and worked on packing food relief for the homeless and for those who are in need. Big companies have opened up their factories to produce rubbing alcohol and designers have sewn and delivered PPEs to hospitals. This crisis has exemplified the importance of coming together as one community, which is what the Filipino custom of Bayanihan is about. This pandemic is the time to ignite the spirit of ‘bayanihan’ among ourselves realizing the admirable extent of altruism and the strong sense of common humanity. Bayanihan might not be perceived as important to those in the comfort of their air-conditioned living rooms, but it is transformative to the most marginalized and vulnerable communities such as the IDPs in Transitory sites. This is the time to be each other’s bayani.  

An IDP Family in Sagonsongan Transitory Site receiving a pack of hygiene kit 

We’ll look back on this time in the years and decades to come and remember how we all came together with kindness and compassion, not only for ourselves but most importantly for those in need. We’ll prove yet again that when united against a common foe (like COVID-19), we will thrive. 

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