MANILA – At noon last Friday (June 5), when the air was over 36 deg C, a crowd of about 600 gathered under the shadow of a Catholic church in Baclaran district, south of Manila.
They had come from all over Metro Manila and the surrounding suburbs, desperate to escape a metropolis plagued for months by a deadly virus.
They are retreating to their sanctuaries in the provinces as jobs in Metro Manila – home to some 13 million – are wiped out by a relentless pandemic.
“We’ll go hungry there (in Metro Manila) because we have to pay for everything. There, you don’t eat if you don’t work,” said Mr Richard Salcedo, 33.
Mr Salcedo was working as a walkie-talkie repairman on a high-rise that was being constructed in Makati, the country’s richest business district, when President Rodrigo Duterte put the northern third of the Philippines, including Metro Manila, on a sweeping lockdown on March 16.
Work stopped at his site, and his boss told him to go home because he was not going to get paid any more.
But home was 300km away, in Libon town, Albay province, and the borders were shut. A web of checkpoints and barricades manned by soldiers and policemen, some armed with assault rifles, sprouted overnight to make sure no one went in and out of Metro Manila.
Everyone who was not working in medical care, food processing, logistics, outsourcing and law enforcement was ordered to shelter at home.
Mr Salcedo was stuck, without a job, with a pregnant wife and two children with him.
The abrupt lockdown prevented hundreds of thousands from leaving Metro Manila, a city of more than 12 million. Many, like Mr Salcedo, are from the provinces who found temporary work in the capital, but suddenly found themselves jobless.
Others had lived there for a few years, but having lost their jobs, felt they would be safer and less desperate if they could move to safer havens outside Metro Manila where they can rely on the good graces and charity of their clans there.
About a million workers lost their jobs in Metro Manila in April and the nationwide unemployment rate soared to a record-high of 17.7 per cent that month because of the lockdown.
“In the province, even if you don’t have any money, you can still find something to eat. You can go to the mountain and scavenge for fruits and vegetables. You can hunt there,” said Mr Salcedo.
He said in Metro Manila, “you can’t hustle. You’re at the mercy of the government”.
“If you don’t get relief from the government, all you can do is sleep through the hunger,” he said.
Mr Salcedo and his wife and children stayed with a brother who had a house in a slum district near Makati.
He said he did not get any government aid because he was not listed as a resident of his brother’s district.
His brother did get some assistance. But that amounted to just three sacks of rice, some fish, chicken and an abundance of canned goods.
“We had to make it last for three months. I was paid my last month at work, but that lasted for just a month,” said Mr Salcedo.
When he heard that men at Baclaran church were organising free bus rides to his home town, he gathered his wife and children and walked 10km from their rented home in Taguig city to Baclaran.
His brother and his family also went with him, as did a sister, who worked as a maid. All in all, there were 11 of them. The entire family was fleeing.
“We had to leave. We couldn’t pay the rent, and our electric and water bills. We had no money left,” said Mr Salcedo.
He was among some 2,000 that the church has so far help transport outside Metro Manila. Many walked for hours to get to the church from where they were staying.
Mr Rico Balatinsayo, 45, a mason, said he and 12 fellow construction workers walked from 2am to 8am looking for the church. “We got lost several times,” he said.
Ms Mary Joy Bermas, 26, an account officer at a lending firm, is eight months pregnant.
She said she was going home to Bacacay town, in Albay, because she wanted to give birth there, where her husband had been waiting for her.
She had been living at a staff house since the lockdown, hardly leaving. She was desperate to go home.
“I don’t want to give birth here. I’m all alone here, and the hospitals are filled with Covid patients,” she said.
The government eased curbs around Metro Manila on June 1. But provincial buses are still not allowed in and out of the capital.
The church in Baclaran has been a waypoint for those seeking to flee Metro Manila, providing shelter and food for those who had been stranded.
It reached out to politicians for buses, food and travel passes. Calls were also sent out to volunteers. A local celebrity donated antibody test kits, so those departing could be tested before they leave.
“They may also have nothing waiting for them in the provinces. But at least they’ll have one less problem to deal with,” said Mr Ciriaco Santiago III, a Redemptorist brother helping coordinate his church’s back-to-the-province project.
“They can breathe easier when they’re there, though I believe they’ll be back after three months.”