Alternatives to the Dystopian COVID-19 Pandemic Future for Older Adults in the Phillipines

Aug 21, 2020 | All posts, Country reports, Letters from...

Blog Contribution of Joseph H. Batac (with Peter Lloyd-Sherlock)
139 Nagbalon, Marilao, Bulacan, Philippines
As of 04 August 2020

Tuesday 4th August 2020: Today marks the resumption of a near-total lockdown in Bulacan province, after two months of relative relaxation. In fact, it is nearly five months (147 days) since an official protocol required all people aged 60 and over to remain confined to their own homes and to stay away from public places. This aspect of the lockdown wasn’t temporarily relaxed and it is enforced by village disaster management volunteer and neighborhood watch groups. Older people in these villages have little choice but to comply and remain at home.

The effects of this age-specific lockdown on older people can only be imagined. As well as social isolation and mental health impacts, many of these people will have lost access to paid work. The Philippines does have a social pension system, but the numbers of older people who receive payments are very small, and they are worth only US$10 a month. Understandably, many older people need to work to survive. There have been some efforts to address their economic vulnerability. In late April the government provided a small number of older adults a one-off cash transfer worth about US$100. In theory, these payments went to the “poorest of the poor” and those few people who already received the US$10 monthly social pension were ineligible for this extra support. As this was an emergency ad hoc initiative, there was no time to apply a formal targeting mechanism based on systematic data. Instead, government representatives drew up lists of potentially eligible older people and these were then (in theory) vetted by local social welfare offices. In Joseph’s village, fewer than one in ten older residents received this one-off payment.

At the same time, the government has provided a US$200 million fiscal stimulus for micro, small and medium enterprises. This sounds like a large amount, but in a country the size of the Philippines, and where many people are employed in small-scale, informal activities, it is unlikely to reach the large majority of these enterprises. Certainly, there has been no evidence of this happening in Joseph’s village. And the scheme makes no special provision for enterprises run by or employing older adults.

Even less is being done to mitigate the brutal social and psychological impacts of five months of lockdown. In other countries, many stay-at-homers have been able to make increasing use of digital communication to attenuate these effects. The villages of Bulacan, as in many parts of the Philippines, opportunities to do this are very limited. Most older adults have few years of schooling and made little or no use of smart phones or computers before COVID-19 arrived. As Filipino society has become increasingly reliant on digital technology in the context of the pandemic, this digital exclusion has become a growing driver of older adults’ isolation.

And anyway, five months into the pandemic, there is still no public of information of specific relevance to older people, be it online or in a non-digital format. The only information from government health agencies is unspecific to older people, simply urging the population to stay at home, wash hands, wear a mask and take the usual preventive strategies. This neglect of older people has gone unchallenged. Banning older people from public places and forcing them to remain at home has left them socially invisible, and has undermined advocacy and lobbying by older people’s organisations.

Despite being singled out for a draconian lockdown, older people still make up the large majority of COVID-19 deaths in the Philippines. Official mortality data (which are unlikely to capture the full picture) show people aged 60 or more accounted for over 60% of deaths attributed to the disease by mid-July. People aged 60+ represent 8.6% of the national population, which means that their risk of COVID-19 mortality has been about 7 times higher than for the national average. Yet despite these figures, older adults are not a priority for testing or treatment. Capacity for testing, tracing and supportive isolation has significantly increased, but older adults are only tested when they can show they have been in close contact with another person infected with COVID-19.

In the context of this old-age lockdown, it is not easy to know how older people are living their lives within the four walls on their own homes. Past experience suggests they may be doing much to help their families cope with the crisis, be it with housework or childcare. Hopefully, older people’s past experiences of hardship (including several major conflicts), as well as their generally strong religious faith, will boost their resilience and be a source of strength and inspiration to younger relatives. In parts of the country with larger numbers of reported cases, state-run schools remain closed. It is likely that grandparents will be doing much to help with their families’ additional needs for child care, as well as with home-schooling.

And so, as the sixth month of pandemic life begins, older people may continue to be socially invisible, but may also continue to hold together families struggling with the strains of this unfolding crisis.