Earlier in May, I ventured to the mall nearest our house to pay long overdue bills. As a sociologist, I’m am among lucky ones in the Philippines that continued to receive salary even when our workplace declared a “shutdown”. In the queue at the mall’s entrance, an elderly couple before me was blocked by security because both were already in their 70’s. The Philippine government has allowed malls in selected areas of the country to open provided they only allow entry to those aged 21 to 59. As I watched the couple walk away, I was reminded of my own grandparents who lived just 2 hours away from us but in the rural part of another town. One of the worries my family faced when lockdown orders were placed was how to bring medicines and provisions to our grandparents. True enough, military checkpoints guarding provincial borders barred my cousin from entering my grandparents’ province. These scenarios illustrate the crucial role of the social institution of family in Philippine society in ensuring the welfare of older citizens.
Advanced age has been identified as among risk factors in COVID-19 cases. Older people are more vulnerable to developing complications from COVID-19 due to declined immune system of the body that come with aging and existing underlying health conditions. Physical distancing policies have therefore been mainly targeted towards the elderly. In most cities in the Philippines, these measures include restricting entry of older people to malls and public markets and limiting their movements from one city to another. However, these can also present different kinds of complication as older people may become more isolated from their communities and social network and restricts their access to basic needs and medicine (Vieira, et. al., 2020). This is most likely the case of the elderly couple barred from the entering the mall. Their family members might have also been locked-in in their own provinces, unable to provide much-needed assistance and solidarity to their older relatives.
While the Philippine government acknowledges that its senior citizens are entitled to “long term and palliative care, social security and protection, these facilities are not well developed in the country”. The responsibility of caring for the elderly generally falls on the family rather than the state. There remains a strong stigma against children who neglect their parents in their old age which traces to the Filipino value of utang na loob or debt of gratitude (Paguirigan 2019). Filipino children who fail to care for their parents in old age is considered shameful (Badana and Andel 2018).
However, COVID-19 has shown family-oriented societies, like the Philippines, that clinging to cultural norms of caring is only as good when poor citizens can still scrap a living to feed household members. In the Philippines, this could mean earning a living on the streets to feed household members which could be as many as 22 (Jimenez-David 2017). Locked out from their source of income, poor families look to the state for aid in alleviating the financial barriers to accessing basic goods and services. This, of course, presents another complication for low-income countries whose national coffers are strained even before the pandemic began.
In the past, the Philippine government relied on the social institution of the family to cover the social services it cannot provide: education, healthcare, family planning and care for the elderly population. The burden of carrying these obligations is heavier for women, particularly in the context of the Philippines “where the informal work sector is large and the distinction between work and home environment is often blurred” (Chen et. al., 2018). As a sociologist, the COVID-19 pandemic had me reflecting on whether cultural norms of caring, which Filipinos take pride in, enabled the state to slack off on its responsibility to provide for the basic social needs of its citizens, especially to the most vulnerable.
For me, the “new normal” , a phrase much touted in places where COVID-19 restrictions are being eased, should not only be a series of guidelines on physical distancing but must include a comprehensive and improved system of “social protection coverage [including] universal access to quality health care; family friendly policies and employer protections, and support to all children to access necessary services” (UNICEF 2020). Among the interesting recommendations of the WHO, that we all can take part in, is exploring mechanisms of developing digital literacy among older people “so they can use mobile apps for receiving information and for communicating with family members and community service providers even when physically separated”.
The World Health Organization recognizes that access to health-care services is critical for the older population during the pandemic and innovative approaches must be established to provide support and resources to healthcare providers and family members. Caregiving at home, nutritious food, toiletries and medicine should not be left to the elderly and their family members to provide. The new normal is a way forward for supporting families in providing care to their older family members and the government in taking a stronger role and responsibility in providing social services and welfare of its citizens.
Badana, Adrian N. S. and Ross Andel. 2018. “Aging in the Philippines.” The Gerontologist 58(2):212–18.
Chen, Feinian et al. 2017. “Double Burden for Women in Mid- and Later Life: Evidence from Time-Use Profiles in Cebu, the Philippines.” Ageing and Society 38(11):2325–55.
Jimenez-David, Rina. 2017. “Thank You, Rosalie.” Inquirer Opinion Thank You Rosalie Comments. Retrieved May 14, 2020 (https://opinion.inquirer.net/106208/thank-you-rosalie).
MMC. 2020. “COVID-19: Who Are the Most Vulnerable?” Makati Medical Center. Retrieved May 10, 2020 (https://www.makatimed.net.ph/news-and-exhibits/news/covid19-who-are-the-most-vulnerable).
Paguirigan, M. R. B. (2019), ‘Services for the Older Persons’, in G. T. Cruz, C. J. P. Cruz, and Y. Saito (eds.), Ageing and Health in the Philippines, Jakarta, Indonesia: Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia, pp. 149-160.
UNICEF Social Policy Section. 2020. UNICEF Social Protection Response to COVID-19 . Retrieved May 10, 2020 (https://www.unicef.org/media/67361/file/UNICEF Social Protection Response to COVID-19.pdf).
Vieira, Cristina Mesa, Oscar H. Franco, Carlos Gómez Restrepo, and Thomas Abel. 2020. “COVID-19: The Forgotten Priorities of the Pandemic.” Maturitas 136:38–41. WHO. 2020. “Health Care Considerations for Older People during COVID-19 Pandemic.” World Health Organization. Retrieved May 10, 2020 (http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-emergencies/coronavirus-covid-19/technical-guidance/health-care-considerations-for-older-people-during-covid-19-pandemic).
Gretchen Abuso is tenured faculty at the Sociology and Anthropology Department of Xavier University in the Philippines. She may be reached at email@example.com.