That one in every three Filipinos went hungry last month—and is probably experiencing hunger up to this time—is horrifying, to say the least.
The alarming hunger rate of 30.7 percent, affecting 7.6 million families in the country, has reached an all-time high among all the surveys done by the Social Weather Stations in the past 22 years.
And it won’t be surprising if, based on the bleak SWS reports for the past three quarters, the number of hungry families continues rising inexorably, given the perfect storm of the raging coronavirus pandemic devastating the economy.
“Hungry families doubled from 8.8 percent in December 2019 to 16.7 percent in early May 2020, rose further by 14 points to 20.9 percent in early July, and then rose by another 10 points to 30.7 percent by mid-September,” according to SWS president Mahar Mangahas.
With the staggering number of Filipinos suffering from the pangs of hunger, around a hundred times more than the number of people who tested positive and are suffering from COVID-19, it is beyond dispute that tackling the growing rate of hunger ought to be given utmost priority – at par with that of our country’s response to fight the pandemic.
Of course, substantially reducing the coronavirus transmission rate is essential. But given that the number of deaths from hunger and malnutrition in the country is roughly three times higher on the average than the number of COVID-19 fatalities, an all-out response to address hunger is imperative, especially with a UNICEF report that undernutrition is causing 95 child deaths daily in the Philippines.
To get insights on how to go about with immediate and long-term measures to address the hunger situation, I had an enlightening discussion in my Teleradyo program Sagot Ko ‘Yan last Sunday with top economist Cielito Habito, a former Socio-Economic Planning Secretary and director-general of the National Economic and Development Authority.
Pointing out that two out of three Filipinos do not suffer from hunger, Mr. Habito said that if just one of these two would really reach out and help those in dire need, then the hunger situation would radically improve. It’s ordinary Filipinos helping out fellow Filipinos, and not merely relying on government and big business to help. He stressed what former President Fidel Ramos used to say during tough times: “Caring and sharing will get us through.”
But it is essential that the economic situation improves. And the one thing that can really help turn our dire situation around is public confidence, he said. To restore confidence, he stressed, it must be shown the efforts to flatten the COVID curve – testing, tracing, treatment and isolation – are really working and leading to significant gains.
Addressing hunger in the short term through infusion of financial aid directly to the 7.6 impoverished Filipino families can do a lot to improve their plight. But here lies the problem: With lack of a reliable database at present, finding out exactly who and where these families are remains a daunting challenge.
Another problem is distribution of outright cash aid. Not only is there disheartening news that financial aid is no longer forthcoming as there is no new budget allocation, there was also a revelation in a recent Senate hearing that some P10 billion has remained undistributed, and is still with the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
Such DSWD failure to distribute the P10 billion without delay to starving Filipinos was described in an editorial as “a deplorable neglect of its duty to come to the immediate aid of suffering citizens” and that “withholding such critical aid, for whatever reason but especially over red tape and bureaucratic bungling, amounts to a criminal disservice to the public.”
The predicament over aid distribution could be effectively addressed if local government units are enjoined to take an active role, especially because under the Local Government Code, much of the primary functions and tasks of the DSWD have already been devolved to LGUs.
To address hunger in the long-term, Mr. Habito stressed that efforts must focus on tackling the various forms of malnutrition, particularly stunting and wasting, affecting Filipino children. I fully agree with him.
Malnutrition can cause permanent, widespread damage to a child’s growth, development and well-being. The data on stunting is disturbing: one in three Filipino children is irreversibly stunted by the age of 2, mainly due to lack of nutritious food.
“Stunting in the first 1,000 days is associated with poorer performance in school, because malnutrition affects brain development, and also because malnourished children are more likely to get sick and miss school. Hidden hunger can cause blindness (vitamin A deficiency), impair learning (iodine deficiency) and increase the risk of a mother dying in childbirth (iron deficiency), a 2019 UNICEF report said.
“And this disruption to children’s physical and cognitive development stays with them into adulthood, compromising their economic prospects and putting their futures at risk,” the report added.
It is extremely urgent, therefore, to address our hunger situation that seems to be worsening as the pandemic rages. An “all-of-country approach” is imperative. Let’s remember that “caring and sharing will get us through.”