Gasping for Air: The Worsening Plight of Haiyan Resettlement Residents Amid The Pandemic

By: Brynch Bonachita

“It was a struggle for us,” Mark said, recounting how he and his family had to make do with tents, and then a shabby bunkhouse for almost three years, on the heels of tropical cyclone Haiyan, known locally as super typhoon Yolanda. In November 2013, the storm, which marked history as the strongest recorded to hit on land, washed away what’s left of their home in San Jose, in Tacloban City, a place nestled between two coastal bodies of water.

The 21-year-old’s family is among the 1.9 million people whose lives have been upended, after tumultuous winds and a seven-meter storm surge swept houses, especially along those on the shores of the Visayas Islands in the Philippines. In response, the Philippine government implemented a “no-build zone” policy, which prohibited communities from going back to these areas and pressed survivors to settle in relocation sites.

Seven long years have passed since the typhoon, and although families have been drawn away from the vulnerability of storm surges, they still grapple with the aftermath of the disaster. Now relocated to Ridgeview Park, a resettlement area in the peripheries of the city, Mark says that living in the housing unit is mired with difficulties. “There wasn’t always a supply of water and my father lost his job as a fisherman,” he said.

Ridgeview Park is just one of the shelter projects constructed by the government. According to University of the Philippines Tacloban professor and political scientist Ladylyn Lim Mangada, citing data from the Homeowners Association, there have been close to 20,000 people housed in relocation sites located away from the city. Cutting across the different government-built houses, however, are concerns of subpar dwelling units, lack of accessible livelihood, and intermittent water, which thousands of families continue to live with today.

Now, faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, Haiyan shelter residents find themselves further in a precarious position. To keep themselves afloat, families have to wade through existing socioeconomic disparities — double-downed by a health crisis that is ailing an already murky path to resilience.

Resettlement Housing for Haiyan Survivors via The Official Gazette

Mobility and livelihood

“Because of the lockdown, my father couldn’t find a job,” said Khai, another resident of Ridgeview Park, for three years now. Since her family relies on their sari-sari store and her father’s work as a carpenter to make ends meet, Khai said her parents’ source of income took a nosedive, when the government enforced strict quarantine measures in Tacloban City, starting March 2020.

Curfews and liquor bans discouraged consumers from buying goods, while demands to stay at home and strict health protocols forced those in the informal working sector to be out of commission. Mark’s family, who also owns a sari-sari store, only receives a meager amount of around ₱1,000 a day ($20.59), from their usual ₱3,000 ($61.77) before the health crisis. With no livelihood safety nets from the government, economic activity in the locale has receded.

For Mangada, the pandemic has exacerbated economic inequalities. “You see this in informal workers: fisherfolk, market and sidewalk vendors, those involved in catering service and karinderya (food stall), and motorcycle drivers,” she said, underpinning that Haiyan resettlement residents mostly come from the informal sector.

Mangada, who is a super typhoon Haiyan survivor herself and has extensive research on post-disaster recovery, attributes low-income generation and job insecurity of the relocatees to quarantine measures, brought about by the coronavirus health emergency. “With the lack of mobility, they do not have sources of livelihood,” she said.

Despite the local government ushering in initiatives to provide food and cash, Mark, along with other residents and barangay officials, have pointed out that these programs from the city government were inadequate to get by. In her fieldwork, Mangada also says that those from resettlement areas would often ask for extra assistance and food packs when local officials distribute aid.

Health and education

In terms of health and education, the pandemic has also brought to the fore and accentuated the social problems of Haiyan housing residents.

As college students, both Mark and Khai struggle with the remote learning set-up, since face-to-face classes have been barred following the national government’s health policies. “It’s difficult to focus because we’re not used to online classes,” said Mark, who is currently a 3rd-year math student. “We just submit academic requirements for the sake of it, unlike before when we got to really learn,” he lamented.

Being away from the heart of the city, Ridgeview Park residents are marred with network connectivity issues, much to the detriment of their schooling. Khai, a 3rd-year marketing management student, often has to miss assignment deadlines for having to wait late at night for a stable internet connection. “It’s like my education is being sacrificed because there is no internet in the morning,” she said.

In her presentation, “The Covid-19 Health Emergency Experience of the ST Haiyan Resettlement,” Mangada cited that mothers of elementary and high school students are the ones answering modules and standing-in as teachers for their children. This poses challenges and highlights inequalities, as mothers who lack formal education or have several children would find it difficult to attend to their children’s schooling needs.

The longstanding issues of intermittent water and cramped living spaces, on the other hand, are foisting health risks. With the lack of an accessible water supply, residents have to put themselves in harm’s way by going out of their homes to fetch water, which is needed for drinking and sanitation. Social distancing is impossible, if not difficult to practice, as housing units are too small for some families.

People from the resettlement area who are ill have also grown reluctant to visit hospitals for medical aid. This is because, Mangada said, there is a well-publicized incident involving the COVID-19 infection of health workers from the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center which foregrounded people’s anxiety over catching the virus. As an alternative, relocatees have opted for the use of herbs to tend the sick.

Surging forward

Clamors to address existing inequalities faced by Haiyan shelter residents appear to have fallen on deaf ears, as the local and national government have been slow on the uptake, to respond to the persisting problems of access and welfare.

Much more broadly, the plight of Haiyan relocatees is symptomatic of the climate emergency. Massive rains, surprisingly strong winds, and the sudden change of the climate, Mangada said, are part of global systemic issues. “First and foremost, [Haiyan survivors] wouldn’t be there if there was no super typhoon,” she said.

Although scientific research has yet to be conclusive to say that one specific disaster is caused by climate change, Dr. Yvonne Su emphasized that “what we can say is that perhaps typhoon Haiyan, the intensity of it, was increased as a result of climate change,” fueling the utmost need to hit the brakes on carbon emissions and retool unsustainable economic systems.

What has been shed clear, on the other hand, is that when mere stopgap measures are placed for post-disaster recovery and resilience, the lived realities of the Haiyan survivors illustrate exactly how socioeconomic disparities become in themselves disasters, made worse when a crisis comes.

Rehabilitation and capacity-building programs, then, need socioeconomic development, along with the democratization of post-disaster projects, where stakeholders are empowered to be part of decision-making instead of being passive recipients of these initiatives. In practice, this means that community participation, for instance, is part of the construction and design of dwelling units, as underscored by Mangada, when humanitarian organizations implemented housing strategies for Haiyan victims.

Without a doubt, any hope to weather future storms would require heeding to the voices of survivors. After all, seven long years have passed, and yet, Haiyan relocatees still find themselves gasping for air.

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