MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - What a bleak report the Social Weather Stations issued last Sunday (Sept 27): A record high 30.7 per cent of Filipinos, or 7.6 million families, went hungry in the last quarter because there was not enough food to eat.
Going on seven months under quarantine measures that have shuttered thousands of businesses and left millions without a job, about one in every three, or 30.7 per cent, of the 1,249 adult Filipinos SWS surveyed from Sept 17-20 said they experienced hunger at least once in the past three months.
That's a grim jump from about 5.2 million families, or 20.9 per cent, in the July survey, beating the previous high of 23.8 percent recorded in March 2012.
The SWS national mobile phone survey indicated that hunger incidence had been rising inexorably since May 2020 as strict quarantine measures were put in place.
Particularly worrying is the record high incidence of severe hunger of 8.7 per cent in September 2020 - meaning that nine of every 100 Filipinos went hungry "often" or "always" in the past three months, surging beyond the previous peak of 6 percent in March 2001.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon put it in stark terms: "Natutulog po ang 7.7 milyong pamilyang Pilipino nang walang laman ang sikmura (7.7 million Filipino families are sleeping on an empty stomach) … The government must address this immediately before it spirals into a full-blown crisis."
The situation is harrowing enough. But it becomes profoundly horrifying when news about millions of Filipinos enduring daily hunger pangs comes on the heels of a staggering revelation in a recent Senate hearing: that the Department of Social Welfare and Development still has in its office some P10 billion that was supposed to aid four million poor Filipinos under the social amelioration program (SAP), but that has remained undistributed.
During the deliberations on the DSWD budget, Social Welfare Secretary Rolando Bautista made the breathtaking admission that the agency had failed to distribute the entire amount that Congress had earmarked for the second tranche of the SAP as mandated under the second Bayanihan law.
About 18 million poor Filipino families received the "ayuda" of P5,000 ($140) to P8,000 each under the first tranche that amounted to close to P100 billion, but, according to Bautista, the number of recipients for the second tranche was reduced to 14 million families.
Why the huge slash in coverage, when joblessness and desperation had in fact only deepened among the populace in the later quarantine months?
Some families had received aid from multiple government agencies, said Bautista. Some names came from lists submitted by local government units, while the Office of the President also issued directives to include other families affected by the pandemic.
The DSWD's trimming exercise supposedly to avoid duplication and waste was apparently a raging success, because the agency ended up keeping to itself a whopping P10 billion allocated precisely to be distributed without delay to starving Filipino families.
By any measure, that is a deplorable neglect of its duty to come to the immediate aid of suffering citizens; but in the context of the twin calamities of a pandemic and economic ruin ravaging the land, withholding such critical aid, for whatever reason but especially over red tape and bureaucratic bungling, amounts to a criminal disservice to the public that deserves the sternest rebuke.
To add insult to injury, the DSWD said it is considering returning the unused fund to the Department of Budget and Management - a callous, farcical gesture at this point. Instead of outright cash aid, it is also ostensibly looking to use the fund for livelihood projects.
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III expressed surprise at the P10-billion unspent amount and vowed to take it up with the Development Budget Coordination Committee - yet another hair-tearing example of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing under this administration.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto has pressed the DSWD to immediately distribute the balance of the fund, to bring some Christmas cheer to pandemic-hit families: "If under the worst-case scenario it can be given late November, then it can qualify as a Christmas ayuda … Some monetary cheer from the government will go a long way."
What will go a long way is for the government to ditch its doddering business-as-usual approach in the face of the worst economic and public health crises in the country's history, and "act with dispatch," as Sen. Joel Villanueva has urged it.
Perhaps the only silver lining in the revelation of the DSWD's shilly-shallying is that it has belied President Duterte's assertions that his administration has no more money ("Wala na akong pera") to shell out for hapless citizens whiplashed by the economic downspin his Covid-19 response has triggered.
There is money; the government just needs to find the conscience and the urgency to give it out.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.