Covid-19 and Social Inequality: How Poor Filipinos Suffer More During Pandemics

Regletto Aldrich Imbong

Summary: On social inequality and the Filipino government’s measures taken against the coronavirus – Editors.

The Philippines has a long history of disasters, both natural and human-made, that wreaked havoc upon the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Filipinos. Its geographic location makes the country more prone to frequent earthquakes, strong typhoons, and other natural disasters. These natural occurrences have not only revealed the vulnerability of most of its sectors but also uncovered the underlying socio-economic structure that determined how resources, commodities, and wealth are distributed and how such a distribution affects social relations in general.

When the state of national health emergency was declared by President Rodrigo Duterte last 8 March 2020, the country had already recorded ten Covid-19 cases and had gained the reputation of having the first death outside of China.[1] After such a declaration by the President, more declarations followed, both at the national as well as the local levels. First, there was the community quarantine in Metro Manila. Later on, this was upgraded to an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) throughout the entire island of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. In this enhanced quarantine, a strict home quarantine is to be observed in all households from 17 March to 13 April 2020.[2] While certain individuals and groups are among the exceptions to the general rule of home quarantine, virtually all of the people of Luzon are prohibited from going out of their households during the entire duration of the ECQ. The ECQ would be replicated later in some provinces and cities in the islands of the Visayas and Mindanao. The Philippines’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic would also later on be addressed by the creation of the National Action Plan (NAP) chaired by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana,[3] a military general and the administrator of Martial Law in Mindanao from 2017 to 2019. In fact, the NAP would be composed of military generals whose medical knowledge, it can be presumed, is far inferior to that of scientists and health experts more fit to lead a body tasked to curb the effects of a pandemic.

While the enhanced community quarantine seems to have an equalizing effect to all affected citizens, a closer look both at its content as well as at its application reveals a social inequality that has haunted the Philippine society for centuries already. First, the idea of a home quarantine would really be effective if and only if there were indeed a home for all citizens to stay quarantined inside in the first place. The Philippines has a record high of urban squatting, where 20-25 million Filipinos do not have decent housing.[4] Urban squatting in the Philippines has deep historical roots, but the problem is essentially entangled with the lack of job opportunities in the urban areas and of affordable social housing for the poor working people.[5] The housing issue in the Philippines would make timely what Friedrich Engels explained in 1872 in The Housing Question. “What is meant today,” he argued, “by housing shortage is the peculiar intensification of the bad housing conditions of the workers as a result of the sudden rush of the population to the big cities.” He further explained that such a shortage is characterized by a “colossal increase in rents, still greater congestion in the separate houses, and, for some, the impossibility of finding a place to live in at all.” What is rather alarming of this housing shortage is that it not only haunts the working class people – and the unemployed of course – but also the petty bourgeoisie as well.[6] In the absence of decent housing where one can shelter oneself from the dangers of a contagious and deadly virus, one can merely secure a night’s rest on exposed sidewalks most vulnerable to the threat itself, thus defeating altogether the very notion of quarantine. This situation of homelessness is worsened as demolitions of informal settlements continue despite the declaration of a national health emergency.[7]

Second, restricting the movement of the general population has a more disadvantageous effect to those who live by daily wages. Daily wages here literally mean the amount paid to the laborer on a daily basis as an exchange for his/her labor power for that particular day. And with the “no work, no pay” scheme determined by the contractual[8] basis of labor prevalent here in the Philippines, most if not all of the working people are bound to suffer from an obstructed daily working schedule. With a meager daily minimum wage of Php 537 (USD 10.53) in the National Capital Region, the highest minimum wage in all the regions of the Philippines, a worker will lose around Php 15,000 (USD 294) in one month’s time. This would not be compensated by the government’s adjustment measure program under which an affected worker is promised Php 5,000 (USD 98) in cash as an alleviating measure during the ECQ period. Here, Marx’s comment in Grundrisse that “the historic character of wage labour is non-fixity”[9] takes on a new light as it is exemplified by the plight of Filipino wage laborers suffering the uncertainty caused by the current pandemic.

Third, the Filipino people did not spare themselves the hassles and dangers of panic buying. But while the rich and the middle class panicked to secure for themselves and buy goods which they deemed necessary for their survival during the ECQ, the poor merely panicked. They don’t have the means to buy the stuff they need. Or rather, from a Marxist perspective, individuals, through exchange, could only demand that portion of the social goods allotted to them by distribution, the latter being determined by social laws beyond the agency of the individual.[10] And what is allotted to them through distribution is exchanged through the value equivalent to their labor power. In simpler terms, individuals can only demand or exchange as much as their pay allows them to. And in a country where millions are living on daily minimum wage and still a thousand others are practically living without work at all, the share and distribution of the social goods can be as unequal as the income gap between the rich and the poor Filipinos.[11] The monstrous face of social inequality is revealed during times of crises and pandemics.

Fourth, this social inequality proves itself more in the implementation of the ECQ. Glaring and contrasting examples are between Dorothy Espejo and Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III. It was already noted above how the homeless become very vulnerable, especially in this Covid-19 pandemic. Dorothy Espejo is a 69-year-old homeless grandmother who, after allegedly shouting expletives at barangay officials who called to her as she slept on the streets of Manila, was jailed in violation of prohibiting resistance and disobedience to authority.[12] She could be imprisoned for up to 6 months and fined up to Php 100,000 (USD 1,960). Sen Aquilino Pimentel, on the other hand, is Covid-19 positive. Despite strict protocols on self-quarantine, the senator breached not only these protocols but the ECQ itself by rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital, thus potentially endangering not only his wife and his unborn child, but also all the health workers he came into contact with during that time.[13] The senator’s reckless action forced the health workers he came into contact with under self-quarantine to be exposed to the virus thus diminishing the number of health workers in a country that is in dire need of nurses, doctors, and other health workers. The Department of Justice, contrary to the action against Dorothy Espejo, called for compassion in relation to the Senator’s case.[14] There are more stories of abuse and discrimination against the poor, the Muslims, women, and other ordinary citizens during the implementation of the ECQ in the Philippines that manifest social inequality in the country.

While pandemics are global and universal in character, their effects and especially the suffering they cause vary from one social class to another. Recently, it has been reported that the billionaires seek shelter from the Covid-19 pandemic in chartered superyachts.[15] This is a luxury which ordinary citizens, not even the middle class, can afford. But if there is one lesson that the Covid-19 pandemic has to teach humanity, it is that, for one to be safe, others must be also. Social solidarity, instead of social distancing, became the challenge that went viral on social media. But social solidarity must not be understood as the philanthropic actions of a few toward the many. Rather, social solidarity must be anchored on the eradication of the conditions of social inequality itself. If we apply Engels’ solution to the housing problem to fit to our current predicament, we can only end social inequality and the suffering it causes to the poor during pandemics if we “abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class.”[16]


[1] Sofia Tomacruz, “Duterte Declares State of Public Health Emergency Amid Rise in Corona Virus Cases,” Rappler, 9 March 2020, available at; 29 March 2020.

[2] Anjo Alimario, “Enhanced Community Quarantine Takes Effect in Luzon,” CNN Philippines, 17 March 2020, available at–takes-effect-in-Luzon.html; 29 March 2020.

[3] Virgil Lopez, “Palace Bears National Action Plan VS. COVID-19,” MSN News, 26 March 2020, available at; 29 March 2020.

[4] Habitat for Humanity, “Upgrading Slums in the Philippines,” Habit for Humanity, 2017, available at; 29 March 2020.

[5] Gerardo Sicat, “Historical Roots of Urban Squatting,” PhilStar, 21 November 2017, available at; 29 March 2020.

[6] Friedrich Engels, “The Housing Question,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, vol. 2 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 305.

[7] Bulatlat, “300 Families in Pasay Lose Homes Amid COVID-19 Pandemic,” Bulatlat: Journalism for the People, 18 March 2020, available at; 29 March 2020.

[8] Ibon Media, “Contractualization: A Neoliberal Policy,” Ibon, 26 April 2018, available at; 29 March 2020.

[9] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin Classics, 1973), 891.

[10] Marx, Grundrisse, 89.

[11] Reicelene Joy Ignacio, “Income Inequality Widening Amid Strong Economic Growth,” Business World, 30 May 2019, available at; 29 March 2020.

[12] Lian Buan, “Cops Arrest Homeless Lola who Shouted at Tanods Warning About Curfew,” Rappler, 17 March 2020, available at; 29 March 2020.

[13] Xave Gregorio, “Makati Hospital Berates Sen. Pimentel for Violating Quarantine Protocols,” CNN Philippines, 25 March 2020, available at; 29 March 2020.

[14] Lian Buan, “’Compassion’: DOJ not Investigating Pimentel Quarantine Breach Without Complaint,” 25 March 2020, available at; 29 March 2020.

[15] Alan Tovey, “Billionaries Seek Sanctuary From Coronavirus Aboard Superyachts,” The Telegraph, 22 March 2020, available at; 29 March 2020.

[16] Engels, “The Housing Question,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, vol. 2, 305.


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  1. Jose Fermin B. Crave

    a very timely scholarly article created by an author who is so adept of the topic and whose social involvement with the Philippine poor is beyond reproach. worth reading indeed.

  2. David

    this is such a great and very comprehensive article. all the points were backed with powerful ideas and narratives from various articles, and i want to personally thank the author in advance for posting this which will enable me to complete my essay work. i will not forget credits, thanks again!