Speech of Maria Leonor Gerona-Robredo Vice President of the Philippines at the Ateneo de Naga University Center for Local Governance “Tara! Mag Tik-Talk Tayo” Webinar
Thank you very much, Malu [Barcillano]. Fr. Robert [Rivera] and the rest of the Ateneo Community; our reactors who are with us this afternoon; all the participants: Marhay na hapon sa indo gabos!
Mabalos na marhay to the Ateneo de Naga University’s Center for Local Governance for organizing this seminar and for having me! This is actually the longest that I have not been home to Naga because of the pandemic and being with you this afternoon, dawa virtually, is the next best thing. It is always an honor and a privilege to talk about how we can respond better to the challenges of our times.
My husband, as you all know, was a very proud graduate of Ateneo de Naga and two of my daughters are graduates of the Loyola Schools, so the word “magis” gets tossed around the household often. Magis, at its core, is to be more—to give more, be beyond excellent, reach your highest potential, and be the best that you can be. I remember… Naguirumduman ko na nabasa ko sa sarong tarpaulin sa Ateneo de Manila, naagihan ko. Ang sinasabi niya: “Magis is the value of choosing the more loving option.”
But what does this “more loving option” mean given our current context, where everywhere we look, people suffer in poverty and hunger, with no means to support themselves? Dawa kita sain maghiling, grabe an pagsakit. As the months pass by, we see that more and more of our people are losing their jobs and livelihood, and thousands are getting infected with the virus. So what do we do when the end to this crisis seems so far away?
There is no single, fixed answer to these questions, but the call of magis remains clear: We need to expand our circles of empathy. When we understand their pain and suffering, when we listen to their pleas, their experiences and demands, then magis becomes more than just a call to excel; it is also becomes a call to be more compassionate, more humane.
In the context of governance, the “more loving option” is clear: Orient policies, decisions, and actions towards our people. During these extraordinary times, there is no time to waste: we have to find the gaps and fill them; we have to make our own path, set our own direction. We, ourselves, must rise and do what can be done—in the here and now.
If there is anything that this pandemic has taught us, it is this: The greater the challenge, the greater the imperative for us to contribute, to be involved and to extend our reach to help. Everyone should be all hands on deck. Klaro ito. Every step inches us closer to our collective goal.
This is the same spirit that pushes our COVID-19 Response Operations forward at the Office of the Vice President. Early into this crisis, we understood how difficult this would be for our country, pag nakarating ‘yung virus dito. Since January of this year, we have already kept ourselves updated about how the coronavirus pandemic was unfolding. We spoke to experts on infectious diseases, public health, and the economy to understand how COVID-19 will affect our country, and how to address these effects in an impactful, creative, and strategic manner.
Kaya Natin Donation Drive for PPEs
Our Covid Relief Operations began, if I am not mistaken, on March, days before the Enhanced Community Quarantine was imposed over Luzon, seeing how hospitals in Metro Manila were grappling with the dangers of COVID-19. At that time, PPE sets were number one in our frontliners’ list; apparently, many of them had no choice but to place themselves at great risk while handling patients, because they did not have the required protective gear.
We appropriated a little over 5 million pesos for PPE sets which we distributed to hospitals in Metro Manila. But as the days went by, we saw that the need was much bigger, and that it would continue as the country deals with the spread of the disease. Because we have very limited resources at the Office of the Vice President, we tapped our Angat Buhay partner, the Kaya Natin! Movement, for an online donation drive, initially to fund PPE sets and Food and Care Packages.
Through this donation drive, we found ourselves overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from our fellow Filipinos. Thousands of our countrymen pitched in—from students, ordinary employees, OFWs, and business owners. Talagang yung range ng amounts na dino-donate, sobrang… expansive, from 100 pesos hanggang isang milyon, merong nagbibigay. Every donation, big or small, was welcome and much-appreciated. In the end, we were able to collect more than 61 million pesos.
While we had the funds already, the next big challenge for us that we encountered early on was the unsteady supply and fluctuating prices of PPE items, mainly because they were being imported from other countries. That was when we decided to explore the production of PPEs locally. Volunteers from the fashion and garments industry came out in full force to help design the PPEs, in close coordination with medical experts who made sure that the design and materials were up to standard.
When we had the approved designs already, we looked for community-based sewers. We met widows and mothers from Payatas—women who lost their loved ones to senseless killings brought about by the anti-drug war—who willingly extended their help to sew PPEs for our frontliners. We had an urban poor group from Smokey Mountain, home-based sewers in Talim Island in Cardona, Rizal, mga mananahi ng mga uniforms na nawalan ng hanapbuhay dahil walang pasok, small and medium-sized garment factories or shop owners who were only too happy because their sewers would have income during the lockdown. Thanks to our partners, we have reached more than 15,000 frontliners across the country by providing at least 230,000 PPE sets as I speak, and 19,500 locally-produced PPE suits, kasi tuloy-tuloy pa rin ang pag-distribute namin. Aside from the protective gear, we were also able to send food and care packages and medical supplies to over 1,151 institutions across the country. Binilang namin, lahat ng regions napadalhan, hanggang Tawi-Tawi. Mula Batanes hanggang Tawi-Tawi.
Free Shuttle Service
Akala namin noong umpisa, ito lang ang gagawin namin na COVID-related initiative. But when the ECQ started in March, many health workers were unable to go to work or were forced to walk long hours just to get to the hospital, dahil nawalan ng public transport. Pakiramdam namin noon, kailan talaga may gawin kami para kahit papaano ay makatulong. Wala naman kaming pagkaalam sa transport, pero nilakasan talaga namin ang loob namin. We immediately launched a free shuttle service for the frontliners in Metro Manila. Pero dahil naging ugali na namin sa opisina na kung gagawin rin lang namin, gagawin na namin nang mahusay, we conducted our shuttle services following measures similar to a bus rapid transit system. There were designated stop points, where passengers were picked up and dropped off, pero may oras yung lahat ng stops. The daily schedule and updates were posted on our social media pages, and we also adjusted our routes and schedules to suit the convenience of the frontliners. Nakita namin, sobrang importante ito, kasi hindi masyadong naiiconvenience ang frontliners, in the sense na alam nila kung anong oras dadating yung bus sa stop nila. Napaplano nila ang kanilang ruta kung kailangan silang lumipat sa iba pang ruta. And napatunayan namin na kayang gawin; kaya siyang gawin. Kami nga na walang kaalam-alam sa transport nagawa namin. Feeling namin, parang very convenient sana kung ganito yung ating bus system. And because we are a very small office, we invited volunteers to help us. During our first run, ito yung simula pa lang ng ECQ. We had about 300 volunteers, who acted as our mga konduktor, mga dispatchers, mga taga-linis at taga-sanitize ng bus after every route. Sobrang heartwarming, in the sense na there were a lot of people who were willing to help despite the threat to their own health.
Throughout the duration of our shuttle service, many of our passengers were very thankful—medical frontliners got to work safely, supermarket employees no longer had to walk for hours. Ito marami kaming nasasakay na mga buntis na magpapa-checkup, mga pasyente na hindi COVID-related ang mga sakit na magpapa-checkup. Our rides bringing them closer to home.
Because our shuttle services were limited mostly within Metro Manila, we received a lot of requests for temporary accommodations for frontliners. We would hear this from our regular passengers, from our social media followers, and soon enough from the news.
With the help of our Angat Buhay partners, we heeded this call, and in the process, we got to help many of our frontliners: those who lived far from their workplaces, those who opted to stay away from their families para siguruhin yung kanilang kaligtasan, afraid that they might bring the virus home, and those who were discriminated against because of their profession. Nakakalungkot ito, but this was really a reality, especially when we were just starting.
Since we started our dorms on March 23, we were able to open 12 dormitories in Metro Manila, and temporary shelters in the provinces, gaya ng Legazpi City saka Baguio City. Nakahanap kami ng partners. As of today, some of these dorms still remain operational.
Even with social distancing in place, our partners and donors have helped us provide a sense of home and comfort to our frontliner-guests through additional amenities and assistance. Noong meron na kaming dorms, ang daming lumalapit sa amin, gustong mag-offer ng ibang amenities. Halimbawa, free haircut service. Nagkaroon kami ng partner na sila ang gumugupit sa mga frontliners sa mga dormitories. Merong nagpahiram ng mga motor, yung mga motorbikes, which the frontliners can borrow to bring them to their places of work. May nagpahiram ng mga washing machine tsaka dryers para yung mga dormitories namin meron. Pati laundry detergents may nagbigay ng sako-sako. Pati self-care… mga hygiene kits, self-care essentials, may mga nagbibigay. Hot meals and drinks, may nagbibigay. Pati free wifi connection, may lumapit sa amin, nag-offer na… they did free wifi connection in all our dorms. So sobrang… yung spirit of bayanihan was really there.
To date, our dormitories have served nearly 500 frontliners, among them doctors, nurses, and other medical workers; administrative personnel; pharmacists; security guards; clerks and even bank tellers.
The list of initiatives under our COVID-19 response operations has grown longer in months, as we found one gap to fill after another. When the number of cases increased exponentially and market vendors and tricycle drivers started losing income, we started the Community Mart program. It is an app-based palengke delivery service, which actually originated in Naga. Hindi ko alam kung narinig niyo na yung Cuenca Technologies. Sila yung nag-start nitong app na ito, and we contacted them, and they were very much willing to partner with us. The Community Mart program aims to help market vendors and tricycle drivers improve their income, while allowing our kababayans to buy their needs without having to leave their homes.
We started this last May at the Kamuning Market in Quezon City, in partnership with the Quezon City Government led by Mayor Joy Belmonte. Not long after, days after actually, we also partnered with the office of Mayor Vico Sotto and rolled out the Community Mart in Pasig. As of now, our Pasig Mega Market—ito yung biggest kasi—has reached more than 10 million pesos in sales already. So that would mean more sales also for our small market vendors, and more income for our tricycle drivers who deliver the goods. Last week, we opened our third one in Muntinlupa, in partnership with the office of Mayor Jaime Fresnedi.
These Community Marts have proven to be very beneficial to small market vendors gaya ng sabi ko kanina, who did not have the capacity to have an online platform where they can sell their goods, and tricycle drivers who did not have any source of income for many months because they were not being allowed to ply their routes. We actually have a fourth one in Zamboanga City where instead of an app, customers can send their orders to the project’s official Facebook page via Messenger. This is also in partnership with the local government of Zamboanga and with some other private partners in Zamboanga.
Assistance to communities
Aside from supporting our frontliners and small business owners, our office has also launched a relief drive for poor communities in Metro Manila and in Luzon. Many of these communities are still struggling because of the quarantine restrictions. To help them during this difficult time, we have delivered more than 53,000 relief packs as of today, 37,000 kilos of vegetables, thousands of face masks, mattresses, blankets and mosquito nets—thanks to the generosity of various donors and our partner organizations.
We have also helped more than 1,800 locally stranded individuals get home by providing them with transportation services. This is in partnership with their respective local governments. We recognize that it is important to help our kababayans get through the day when access to livelihood, as well as food supply, is difficult for many. Ito talaga ang… talagang ayaw namin magkamali dito, kaya siniguro namin na we were following the stringest protocols. Fortunately, as of today, yung 1,800 na natulungan naming makauwi, wala sa kanila ang nagkasakit. Walang nag-test positive at all. So kaya naman, kung aasikasuhin talaga na… sisiguruhin na all the health protocols are being observed. But beyond this, we believe that it is necessary to equip our communities in adjusting to the new normal.
Our COVID Relief Operations were not limited to Metro Manila and nearby provinces. When Metro Cebu was placed under ECQ due to rising cases, we immediately sent a team to assist Cebu frontliners and provided the same services: from free shuttle services and ferry rides, to temporary living spaces for healthworkers, yung mga dormitories. We have actually opened nine dormitories in four cities in Cebu Province so far, and we distributed swab booths to different hospitals and medical institutions.
For every initiative we started, our goal has always been clear: to do what must and can be done, to stretch our capabilities, and to enlarge the centers of gravity for COVID-19 response efforts. To establish some stability, something to remind our people that despite the struggles, there is a direction, and sure steps can be made toward betterment.
This is the same bedrock philosophy behind our distance learning initiatives. Ito naman, sinimulan namin noong June. When the Department of Education announced that classes will be offered through blended learning in the coming months, many teachers and parents expressed great concern. Many felt unprepared; they lacked the access to Internet and technology at home. There was deep anxiety regarding whether they could pull off this new mode of learning.
Our office immediately responded and launched an initiative called Bayanihan E-skwela. We knew that at the core of anxiety lies a lack of confidence: Not knowing what to do and how to do it, especially with the meager resources they had on hand; treading unfamiliar ground with little to hold on to except muddled policies and directives. As always, we sought to address this through bayanihan, dahil kulang naman talaga kami ng resources. Together with Kaya Natin again, we also made a call for a gadget donation drive.
Since many of our teachers and parents feel unprepared as we shift to distance learning, we also sought the help of subject matter experts from the UP College of Education in producing a series of videos that tackle techniques, approaches, and other tips for teaching and assisting our learners. We worked on this together with several talents in the creatives industry—production houses, ad agencies, mga artista, musicians—all of whom worked pro bono and in their own homes to make the videos. Talagang nakakabilib yung iba nating mga artists. Hindi ko alam kung meron sa inyong nakapanood na, pero halimbawa, si Jolina Magdangal, Janine Gutierrez, Saab Magalona. Sila yung nagvideo ng sarili nila, because of the strict quarantine procedures. But the videos turned out very well.
Right now we are also setting up Community Learning Hubs. It is an alternative space for learners, especially for those who live in the poorest and most remote communities, which more often do not have stable Internet access. Ang iba nga walang Internet access, ang iba wala pang kuryente, if at all. Ito… i-explain ko lang nang kaunti itong Community Learning Hubs. We’re looking at putting these up in places where, number one, most of the students do not have gadgets of their own; number two, Internet signal is very, very difficult; number three, most of the parents do not have the capacity to help their children study at home. Tapos talagang yung kailangan na kailangan… yung difficult learners, kailangan na may gumagabay. The idea is to put up these learning hubs where computers with access to the Internet and lessons are there. Photocopying machines where they can print their worksheets. The presence of tutors… tutors who can guide them with their special needs. All of those things to complement what is being given already by DepEd. As of now, we have started training our volunteer tutors already. We have started setting up our community learning hubs already. Right now, if I am not mistaken, we have a little more than 10, but we hope to establish more, especially in communities that are most in need. These are are expected to open by September, ready to be used by our students once the schoolyear starts in October.
Moving forward and outward
Reimagining a better normal entails casting aside old paradigms, but also rediscovering what truly makes us human. We are human because, despite our insecurities and the temptations towards self-interest, we feel an impulse to reach out, to help others, to pull together, knowing that the survival of one depends on the efforts of all. We are human because, despite the darkness, we dig deep into ourselves and find the strength to move forward, every step animated by grit and resolve, by the human spirit itself.
Since the pandemic set in, I have reiterated this very message: That the only way to pull through this crisis is by moving outward and forward. Palabas at pasulong. Outward, meaning, extending ourselves beyond our usual circles, and reaching out to others with compassion. Breaking out of our old, self-interested bubbles and affinities. And forward, by approaching each task in the here and now with the awareness that everything adds up—that every step, however small, brings us closer to the horizon.
This has been the mantra of the Office of the Vice President from day one, and it is what keeps us going—knowing that with every relief pack given, a family does not go hungry. With every PPE set provided, a doctor or nurse or a health practitioner is protected from the virus. With every palengke delivery made, a market vendor and a tricycle driver earns enough to put food on the table.
Our task now is even greater, but not impossible: Orient our horizon towards the other, and take sure steps, day-by-day, moment-by-moment, towards our collective goal. Ito lang yung mga paalala: Be kind, be giving, be truthful, be brave. Continue, persevere. And always: choose the more loving option. Exemplify magis in all things.
Outward, forward. These are small steps, but are part of bigger movements that matter. Even after this pandemic, this is something we ought to remember, to be ready to fight for, as we begin shaping this brave, compassionate, more humane future.
Kaya Dios mabalos, mabuhay kamo gabos.