Covid-19, assistance, and mutual aid

Our Manila-based researcher, Nathalie Dagmang has co-authored a piece with her father, Ferdinand D. Dagmang, on Assistance and Non-Assistance Before and During the Time of COVID-19.

As they note,

“Some deep/structural causes of deprivation of the needy during the pandemic are not so obvious to most of us. These causes of failure are not easy to identify and would call for a study that goes beyond ineptitude or personal failures: like cultural or institutional reifications—similar to constricted hardened arteries (of the cardio-vascular and respiratory systems) that contribute to deprivation of oxygen supply that brings about malaise in the bodily functions and overall personal well-being. In social matters, this kind of problem is often targeted by prophetic ministers or prophetic personalities.”

The questions they pose include:

  • Why do the State agencies continue to deny assistance to people who are marked for their illegal status and, therefore, ‘unqualified’?
  • What is the nature of this denial?
  • How come some individuals come to the rescue and provide emergency assistance to these sidewalk vendors and dwellers?
  • What tactics of survival exist?
  • What forms of assistance arose and how do these reveal how reciprocal relations between people step in, showing both the cracks, and limits, of the system?

While in principle, “street vendors are regulated by various laws that seek to integrate them into the mainstream economy… in practice, the legal provisions (on registrations, permits, daily collection of fees/taxation, rigidly designated vending stations, and the strict display of Vending Location Certificate, Vending Permit and Identification Card, and the like) effectively present them as socially stigmatized.” (173)

Law, they find, is not constrained by popular standards of behaviour, and is “at the
mercy of itself having its ‘own power’ that cannot be swayed by common sense or compassion.” The strict application of the law is a normative force amounting to legal positivism, that “is a controlling factor common to bureaucratic and legalistic approaches of governance where cultural values are often subordinated or marginalized or an item of ‘under the table’ transactions”. (173)

Legal positivism provides a means of witnessing how, “[w]hen positivist legalities add to the burdens of those in crises, like the vendors and dwellers of Escolta, oppression takes a more invisible institutionalized source. The vendors and dwellers may have to take their recourse—their usual and dependable recourse—to socio-cultural values or customary standards of behavior.”

These values include those that formed the core concepts of Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Philippine psychology) which was born out of attempts at indigenizing the social sciences in the Philippines in the 70s such as makikipagkapwa (Sharing of an inner self; behavior towards others that reinforce (and are also moved by) belongingness), malasakit (compassion that grew from feeling the pain (fil. Sakit) of others) and damay (togetherness in times of crisis; empathetic assistance and mutual aid).

These Filipino values that moved the neighbourhood’s helping behavior are what also allowed the vendors and dwellers to take up spaces for belongingness in a place where they are legally marked as outsiders.

Here, stories of assistance on the sidewalk, with care for pwesto (appropriated space), in order to live on the sidewalk–which sidewalk vendors and dwellers describe as ‘pamamangketa,’ (literally, ‘sidewalking’) come through.

Describing one of these sidewalk vendors or nanays the team–and by extension, to a lesser degree of familiarity, the SEANNET members–has come to know:

“One of them, Nanay Gilda (nanay, which means mother, is also used as a term of endearment), an 80+-year-old vendor gets regular assistance and gifts from her suki and business owners within Escolta. The owner of the building where Nanay Gilda’s pwesto is located gives her daily supply of bottled water while the owner of the carinderia near her pwesto provides her lunch and water refills. She receives fruits during merienda from drivers, employees of nearby office spaces and fruit vendors. Her regular customers from the beauty parlor, centennial building, and LBC (a courier business) motorcycle drivers also hand out money to her (from 50 to 100 pesos) on random occasions.

The givers’ motivations?: “matanda na yan eh” (she’s old, advanced in years already). Other vendors would volunteer to explain that it is because of Nanay Gilda’s old age and charisma. Nanay Gilda returns the favor by giving her suki and kaibigan (friends; what she calls her sponsors) candies and discounted prices for her goods. She also makes sure that she greets her suki when they pass by, even when they do not intend to buy from her.

With the free candy and discounts that she gives them, Nanay Gilda foregoes the profit she can earn from these items. In the case of Escolta vendors, what they value more is stability in their income (regular sufficient returns as well as stable relationships with their customers), rather than gaining more profit from few or occasional transactions.

Some of these suki relationships are also intentionally maintained by the customers as their way to support the vendors they know personally.

As Nathalie and her co-author note, “the South East Asian Neighbourhoods Network Project researchers have witnessed many forms of assistance extended by the office workers, building owners, and frequent/occasional visitors to the sidewalk vendors and dwellers.”

SEANNET’s projects have witnessed the difficulty of bringing analyses of place-based, neighbourhood scale observations and analyses of life in Southeast Asian cities to critical attention. Pedagogical efforts are the heart of SEANNET’s work, and yet there are multiple things to work through to bring the abilities of research institutions and researchers to critically engage the form of writing, awareness, and representation adequate to address what is at stake. There are many ongoing crises–of environment yes, but first and foremost, political and social divisions, marginalisation, deep stereotypes and ideas of progress and backwardness amplified by historical colonisation. This history is enabling ongoing colonisation now. The nuances of each country’s political context requires sensitive, astute observation and analysis that works together with individuals and actors in positions of power to shape better spaces (i.e. to step back, to render support, to reduce incursion, or to stop others from further encroachment).

What we need are ongoing, continued forms of knowledge- and capacity-building, to strengthen local abilities to articulate and express histories and contemporary perspectives, and to share these in a way that the costs of colonisation are known.

Abstract: This article is based on a fieldwork among the sidewalk vendors and sidewalk dwellers of Escolta, Manila, before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. It looks into the treatment of ‘illegals’ in public settings. Before and during the pandemic, street vendors and dwellers were at the mercy of the ‘illegal’ mark—making the state authorities agents of legal positivism. When those recognized as legal by the State have already received monetary and non-monetary assistance, the vendors and dwellers were left on the side of the road waiting for the absent authorities to come while a few individuals had to step in and extend the much-needed customary help—an assistance based on ‘feeling-for-one’s-fellow’ in spite of formal legalities.

Keywords: Helping Behavior • Sidewalk Vendors • Sidewalk Dwellers • COVID-19 • Field Work • Legal Positivism • Pakikipagkapwa • Suki

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