Recent affairs surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have left everyone in shock: what seemed like an ordinary summer suddenly turned into what could only be labeled as a series of life-changing events. Convening spaces like schools, malls, and corporate districts were shut down not only to comply with government regulations but for everyone’s health and safety. While we all struggle to make ends meet locked down in our homes, we are witnesses, through various forms of media, to a world outside that is both still and moving.
Like other world leaders of her mettle, she keeps everything moving at a steady, cool, productive pace. Our Vice President and everybody’s favorite Bicolana, VP Leni Gerona Robredo, shares with us her story of hope.
Paolo: If we’re to come up with a list of the efforts initiated by your Office during this health crisis, we’d have a pretty long article. What are some of the most important issues that need to be addressed right away and what solutions have your Team thought of?
The initiatives that we launched were in line with needs that were very apparent. We stepped in to help fill the gaps, with our focus set primarily on our health workers and other frontliners, given the gravity of their responsibility amid this crisis.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) sets are number one in our front-liners’ wish list. As the number of COVID-19 cases were rising, we learned that many of our medical front-liners did not have the required protective gear, which they needed in handling patients. Our Office immediately responded to this by appropriating P5.9 million so we could send PPE sets to hospitals. But we were aware that the need was much bigger, and it would continue as the country deals with the spread of the disease, so we tapped our Angat Buhay partner, Kaya Natin Movement, which launched a donation drive aimed primarily at funding the purchase of these PPE sets.
We were overwhelmed by the outpouring of help from our fellow Filipinos. As of this writing, the combined amount from our Office and the Kaya Natin donation drive has already surpassed the P50 million-mark—and donations continue to come in. This has enabled us to distribute, as of this writing, more than 88,000 PPE sets to more than 450 hospitals and communities across the country, and we have more to allot for other requesting health facilities. We’re responded to requests from hundreds of hospitals in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, with PPE sets reaching even far-flung areas with the help of our logistics partners.
Working With Local Talents
As we were addressing this need, we encountered several challenges: prices of these products were fluctuating, it wasn’t easy to secure supplies, and sometimes the delivery of the products we ordered were delayed—we were competing with the rest of the world for these supplies, after all. Because of these difficulties, we called for reinforcement from our homegrown fashion designers—and their community came through.
Mich Dulce and the Manila Protective Gear Sewing Club produced the pattern and techpack for a reusable protective suit, an alternative for disposable PPE. The design was medically reviewed in Berkeley, California, and the prototype, which uses Taffeta Silver Back Lining, also got a stamp of approval from an infectious diseases expert, Dr. Jesus Julio Ancheta. From there, we immediately went into production—and we have started delivering these suits to some hospitals that deal with a big number of COVID-19 cases.
This initiative has also opened livelihood opportunities for several communities in Manila and even outside the metropolis. Under our own production house, for example, we’ve tapped groups of women in Payatas and Smokey Mountain to sew these suits. We’re also working with several fashion and manufacturing companies, thus providing work for their employees. The Manila Protective Gear Sewing Club has more members doing the same. Since the group uploaded the pattern and techpack via open source, these are readily available for everyone who may wish to produce protective suits for frontliners in their areas—provided that they use the prescribed fabrics, which need to be approved by a doctor.
Safety and convenience of our front liners
Aside from this, another burden on our frontliners that our Office decided to address was the lack of transportation. On the first day of implementation of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) last March 17, reports came in that many of our frontliners were unable to make it to their workplaces, or needed to walk great lengths just to do so, because there was a ban on public transport. The staff and I decided we couldn’t sit idly by, and reached out to partners who could help us in this regard. When UBE Express agreed to work with us, we then coordinated with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, chair of the National Task Force, to secure permission for our fleet. We sought volunteers from our staff, who would serve as dispatchers, conductors, and other personnel needed for the shuttle service, as we plotted an initial six routes that covered hospitals around Metro Manila. These were all done in less than 24 hours—our buses hit the road the following day, March 18.
We eventually expanded to eight routes, with the help of Diamond Motor Corporation and Pilipinas Autogroup, Inc. We also called for external volunteers, who assisted us in manning our shuttles. Seaoil sponsored fuel for our buses.
Under our Free Shuttle Service, we put in place measures similar to a bus rapid transit (BRT) system: we had a specific time for every stop and we posted the schedule of our routes daily. Our team designed maps and other materials that were both accurate and easy to understand. We also provided live updates on social media every day, and had a team answering inquiries online. As we rode through the learning curve, we saw how an efficient public transport system was possible—and how much such is appreciated by passengers. Because they were aware about the scheduled stops at every pick-up/drop-off point, our frontliners were able to plan their trips to or from work accordingly, and didn’t have to wait by chance for a ride.
Aside from this, we also observed protocols to ensure the safety of our staff and volunteers, as well as of the passengers. Our conductors and drivers were provided with personal protective equipment (PPE). Passengers were required to undergo thermal scanning and disinfection. Our buses were also disinfected at the end of every trip.
Our Free Shuttle Service ran until April 14, the supposed end of the ECQ. During our 26-day run, we were able to serve more than 11,000 Filipinos: from hospital workers and other medical professionals, security guards, uniformed personnel manning the checkpoints, to ordinary Filipinos like patients who needed to go to the hospital for regular treatment, pregnant women, and the elderly. This was made possible by our partners, our staff, and more than 200 external volunteers.
To ensure that our regular passengers would continue to receive such service, we coordinated with the Department of Transportation and the Quezon City Government, which have also been running their respective shuttle services.
With the help of partners, we’ve also opened several dormitories in Metro Manila and in several provinces. These serve our frontliners who live far from work, those who opt not to go home out of fear of bringing the virus to their families, and even those who have been discriminated against by landlords or neighbors.
I also believe it is important for the government to widen its testing efforts, at the very least starting with communities and groups with confirmed or suspected cases. In support of this, our Office allotted P5.3 million for the purchase of extraction kits, an integral part in the testing process for COVID-19—and a need identified by RITM. We delivered these kits last March 19, and they are enough to help RITM and designated subnational laboratories in conducting 12,750 tests. We’ve also earmarked another P14 million to purchase 10,000 units of the locally-produced test kits, invented by our scientists from the University of the Philippines.
Help from everywhere
Aside from these, we have also delivered other forms of assistance for our front liners: from aerosol boxes and medical supplies, to hot meals and food and care packages. These were made possible by generous donors. We’ve also extended help to some communities and groups as well.
Paolo: Through social media, we’ve been witnesses to how other countries are dealing with the challenges of this health crisis on many levels. Some are successful, but there’s still an air of uncertainty as to the end of this crisis. What message can you give to the rest of the Filipinos at this time?
VP Leni: First, I hope that we can all keep in mind: This, too, shall pass. But we can only get through this if we work together. This means abiding by the quarantine, keeping ourselves healthy and safe, observing social distancing and proper hygiene—and most importantly, caring for others.
That said, we must acknowledge that staying at home is a heftier sacrifice for many Filipinos who rely on daily wages and labor to put food on the table. I hope that those who have the means will support our less fortunate kababayans, through the various initiatives launched in this regard. The government must also ensure that adequate provisions are given to these families while we are under this situation.
Yes, these are dangerous times, and we are up against a sly and invisible enemy. But we can protect ourselves—and by doing so, we help protect our community, and our nation. We can survive this through a sense of shared responsibility. Parati lang po nating isasaalang-alang: ang bawat kilos natin ay nakaka-apekto sa ating kapwa, at mas mabuti na tayo ay magtulungan (we should always remember that our actions affect others in many ways and it is best for us to help each other).
This call for shared responsibility, I believe, must be inculcated most on our public officials. As we have seen in the successes, and even the missteps, of other countries, it is important to take on this threat through a holistic approach, matched with a sense of urgency. Aside from strengthening the healthcare system and supporting the front liners, we’re also learning much about what a strong, reliable, honest, and compassionate leadership can do at such a crucial time.
For example, several countries, such as South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Singapore in Asia, as well as New Zealand and Germany, put in place a variation of clear and swift measures in response to the threat of COVID-19. These include mass testing, isolation of those infected, immediate contact tracing, border restrictions, and mandatory quarantine for foreigners. Another common trait among these countries is transparency and strategic communication, knowing well that the currency they are working with is the trust of their people.
Paolo: Filipinos are known for the spirit of Bayanihan—something that is needed these days. How do you think can Filipinos exhibit this spirit in the confines of their homes?
VP Leni: We have seen the spirit of Bayanihan through the outpouring of assistance for our front liners through donation drives and the like, including the one launched by our Angat Buhay partner, Kaya Natin. Much of the funds that enable us to purchase and distribute PPE sets are because of the wellspring of generosity from our kababayans. These donations were facilitated online, through several platforms. We have heard many of our donors say that this is their way of helping while they are stuck at home.
There are also other initiatives done in homes: packing relief assistance and cooking meals for poor communities; making face shields, protective suits, and masks for front liners and others in need; and launching online campaigns drumming up support for frontliners in their respective areas.
We have also heard of stories of solidarity among neighborhoods as we undergo quarantine, like younger members of the barangay offering to buy medicines and groceries, so that the sick and the elderly would not have to go out of their houses. As our medical frontliners have said, our cooperation during this period of Enhanced Community Quarantine is their first line of defense. This is seen as a definite way to help flatten the curve in terms of transmission of the disease.
In turn, again, we reiterate that the government must ensure that our kababayans who otherwise cannot afford to stay at home be provided with their needs, especially food.
Equally important is the boost in morale that our fellow Filipinos have collectively sent our front liners’ way. Most of this has been done through social media—with tributes and cheers, as well as the loud call for adequate support for hospitals and other medical facilities. We see videos of residents by the windows and balconies, giving rousing applause to frontliners from hospitals across their homes or even those passing by their streets. But again, the simplest and most effective way that we can honor them is by heeding their call to stay at home at this time.
Our nation has faced crisis after crisis with grit, resilience, and a strong sense of community. I believe that in our core, we are made for times like this. That said, we can only get through this if we work together, both in slowing down the transmission of the disease and in ensuring adequate support for our front liners and fellow Filipinos in need. ■