01 March 2024

On the 12th of March 2020, the Philippines was put under lockdown as the Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19) continued to ravage the world. To curb this highly infectious disease, the government forbade social intercourse except within households—those infected were further placed in isolation, and the dead were immediately cremated. This was to last almost two years—one of the longest quarantines in the world. 


This caused great suffering in the nation. Metro Manila became a ghost town—gone was the usual hustle and bustle of the city of some 14 million residents. Shops were closed, schools were suspended, and checkpoints were installed. People lost their jobs, and those dependent on selling their daily produce or services had nowhere to go.


As vaccines against the infection became available, government strictures gradually eased, allowing limited mobility.  Passes were issued to representative members of the household so they could go out for provisions. Schools conducted online classes, benefiting those who could afford to acquire their computer or smartphone. Shops sold online and their delivery vehicles were allowed on the streets.  Likewise, the government started giving emergency funds—as much as Php6,000 per month per household, plus food packs of rice, noodles, and some canned goods. However, these were hardly sufficient, further exacerbated by weak implementation. Many households received the promised funds only once or twice during the whole duration of the pandemic.


It is against this backdrop that the three stories below unfolded.




Patricia Non or Patreng, 26, owned a small furniture business. Like many others, she had to suspend her operations when the pandemic struck, and the lockdown ensued.  Patreng not only persevered but also shared what she had with others in need.


Fifteen months into the lockdown, near her residence at the corner of Maginhawa Street in Quezon City, Patreng brought out a small, two-tier bamboo shelf, placing stacks of canned goods, some vegetables, and plastic bags filled with rice. Taped to a lamppost beside the shelf was a carton signboard which read, “COMMUNITY PANTRY: Magbigay nang ayon sa kakayahan. Kumuha ayon sa pangangailangan (Give according to means. Take according to need).


In no time, people flocked to the small Community Pantry. Nobody pushed or shoved. Instead, forming a neat queue, everyone took only what they needed. Perhaps, opined those more critical of the Filipinos’ alleged lack of discipline, people were embarrassed seeing the potential witnesses around them, or perhaps everyone empathised with the equal emergency needs of others. Whatever the reason, it worked! Several people likewise went to the Pantry, not to take but to give.


Patreng decided to post some photos on Facebook, hoping to attract more people to give or to take, and to inspire others to start their own Pantries. The next day, she found that her posting went viral, with as many as 15,000 engagements! 


(Unfortunately, it also attracted the attention of the government’s National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), established in 2018, who then labelled Patreng a “person of interest”. But that’s another story).


In just under two weeks, donations were overflowing, so much so that Patreng had to move her operations to a bigger space in Maginhawa. Her bank account was swollen with cash donations!  Most importantly, this “Miracle at Maginhawa” was emulated in many a community.  At one point, the media reported some 5,000 Pantries set up. Organised by like-minded individuals, it spread ever wider so that barangays all over the country had their own Pantry. The parish priests soon got involved, putting systems in place.


For many Filipinos, it was the Community Pantry that significantly helped save their families during the two years of lockdown.  Later, when interviewed by the press, Patreng replied, “My goal was never to provide for everyone.  My goal was to normalise kindness.”


She now focuses her efforts on helping sell the produce of small farmers directly to consumers.  Thirty per cent of small farmers are living in poverty.




When the pandemic struck, no one was prepared for it. The citizenry was unaware of the nature of the disease, let alone how to treat it. Soon, many people were sick or dying, and the health facilities of the nation were overwhelmed. Panicky families brought their infected members to any clinic willing to accept them. 


One family of farmers, for example, brought their sick father to a small hospital in Cavite—a rare instance of admission to a crowded medical facility. The patient was intubated—a very expensive procedure. Luckily, he recovered, but the family incurred a debt of well over one million pesos in the process! This far exceeded the small amount provided by the mandated government health insurance.  So that the patient could be released—undue delay would have cost more money—one family member gave a post-dated cheque against a deposit he knew he did not have. This was illegal. Fearful that hospitals could blacklist the whole clan, the hat was passed around—relatives were asked to contribute. A granddaughter working in Sweden issued a promissory note to those reluctant to give.  Finally, just in the nick of time, enough funds were collected to honor the post-dated cheque. 


This is a story with a happy ending. Other families were not so lucky. Mindful of these unmet needs, many medical personnel volunteered their services at the risk of their own health, indeed of their lives!  Only armed with face masks and PPEs (personal protective equipment), the front-liners—doctors and nurses who contracted the disease and who died, were named on social media and lauded as unsung heroes. To paraphrase Patreng, this was the time when heroism was normalised.


A year on and with the introduction of vaccines, it seemed that the deadly strain of the virus was finally getting controlled—although a new, less-virulent variant was already detected.  Overcrowding in medical facilities, pressure on medical professionals, and shortfalls in the supply of medical equipment were letting up. During this period of breathing space, the Office of Vice President Leni Robredo came up with a system called Bayanihan E-Konsulta. It was a free, online-based telemedicine platform to cater to people who could not access private platforms, either because they could not afford the consultation fee, or they had no internet connection, or both.


The government programme used Facebook Messenger as it was the easiest way for people to get free consultations. Facebook was already by far the most popular platform in the Philippines; its Messenger service was free, allowing people to send and receive messages even without cellular data.


With budgetary constraints, Bayanihan E-Konsulta relied on volunteers. Starting with a handful of doctors when the programme was launched, it rapidly grew to over a thousand volunteer health workers—nurses, doctors, dentists, psychologists, and other practitioners in the medical field.  Another couple of thousand non-medical volunteers took care of logistical support. They contacted prospective patients, screened them, and connected them to the right professional.  At the end of the consultation, these volunteers delivered free health care and food packages to the COVID patients during their period of isolation.


The biggest problem was the reluctance of the general public to submit to swab tests. The SwabCab, a mobile laboratory driving around areas where infections were rampant, offered free antigen tests, but people hesitated to approach it. A positive test meant they would have had to quarantine for two weeks, with no way to earn their livelihood. As an incentive, several kilos of rice were given to those who submitted to the test. It was a modest success.


Thank goodness to these interventions, and perhaps to the natural immunity of Filipinos acquired whilst living under crowded conditions, the cases of COVID were far less than those in the more prosperous Western countries.



ACAP (Embrace)


Didit Robillo van der Linden founded and heads the NGO ACAP, which started as a sanctuary for street children and, at the time of the pandemic, had expanded to community development, targeting the impoverished neighbourhoods in Parañaque, Pasay, and Muntinlupa, Metro Manila. 


Didit was still orienting some 150 family-beneficiaries about the virus when the lockdown was announced. Unprepared, she prayed. She knew families with little or no livelihood would starve unless some miracle happened. She also knew God was always there when she needed Him most. 


It pays to have friends in high places. Didit Robillo is married to Gerry van der Linden, the former Vice President of the Asian Development Bank, now retired. The couple divides their time between Amsterdam and Manila.  Gerry now does board work in the Philippines, whilst Didit continues her work at ACAP. An established artist before she started ACAP, she too knows a number of people she could tap for donations.


In fact, she related, that was how ACAP started in 2012. Reflecting on her many life blessings, she thought she should share some of them with those less fortunate. So, she did what she did best. She volunteered at an NGO to teach art to street children in Parañaque. Why art when these kids frequently had no food at the table? Didit reasoned that many of these kids were on drugs.  Some had been physically and/or sexually abused: traumatic experiences that could find release through self-expression—hence, art. The NGO consented, and Didit started her years of volunteering until she finally decided to establish her own NGO.


With the help of the barangay, she began with 25 children in an abandoned shelter she borrowed. When the shelter was claimed back, God, as was usual in her life, intervened by providing a donor who gave her sufficient funds so she could buy a small house for ACAP. From art, her tutorials expanded to value formation and skills development. With the enticement of food packs, the mothers too started participating, even joining the organisation as volunteers. 


She currently has seven full-time staff serving some 170 families. Support comes from various sources including foreign donations, as well as a large annual contribution given by a micro-financing company.


But how did ACAP survive the pandemic? Through faith in God and friends, responded Didit. Helped by these friends, she approached businesses. For example, Bread Talk, a big bakery, donated their excess bread supply each week, and Dizon Farms gave her their unsold fruits and vegetables. Additionally, generous cash donations were used to buy supplies from Divisoria Market, which were then re-packed for weekly distribution. It helped that two staff members and two beneficiary children were trapped in the house when lockdown was declared—they became Didit’s helpers. With a sticker given by the government firmly plastered on her van's windshield, Didit could go anywhere, not only for food pack deliveries but also to pick up more donations!


It did seem that the saying, “If there is a will, there is a way,” was spot on!


Image from Philstar.com

An ACAP beneficiary’s artwork