MANILA (BLOOMBERG) - The coronavirus pandemic is giving Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte a reason to reduce overcrowding in Manila, which in recent decades has swelled into one of the most heavily populated areas on Earth.
Duterte is offering cash and goods to induce city-dwellers to move out of the greater capital region in an ambitious programme called "Back to the Province", one of the most aggressive attempts in decades to lure Filipinos to the countryside.
With the pandemic exposing how swift population growth and urban migration have overstretched Manila's transport, utility and health services, the government is now attempting to alter long-entrenched patterns of labour mobility.
The programme is designed to help people like Joel Gortina, a 38-year-old electrician, who wants to return to Cebu province after 15 years studying and working in Manila. With work drying up amid the outbreak, Gortina planned to leave Manila in mid-March, but got stuck when much of the country was placed on lockdown.
"I have no work. I have no money left. I was kicked out of my boarding house," said Gortina, who has been sleeping mostly under roadway overpasses. "It's a crisis here."
More than 2 million jobs had been lost in the Philippines through April 24, about one-third of them in Manila, according to the Labour Department. The densely packed capital region is home to more than 13 million people, and accounts for about two-thirds of the country's coronavirus cases. With the economy staring at its deepest contraction in three decades and unemployment forecast to reach double digits, many are finding life in the capital less appealing.
"Manila has reached its maximum," said Marcelino Escalada, executive director of Back to the Province. Sustained migration to the capital "will not help us in this current pandemic," he said.
Families approved for the programme can receive as much as 110,000 pesos (S$3,072) in money and goods. Almost 60,000 people have applied since the plan began in mid-May, Escalada said, with priority given to the unemployed, homeless and those living in disaster-prone areas.
Thousands more are believed to have left Manila in the days leading up to the lockdown, sometimes with help from non-profit groups.
The big challenge will be finding work in the countryside, with the programme at risk of becoming a temporary solution for many until the economy recovers.
"Unless and until people perceive a more balanced regional development," it may be difficult to draw them to rural areas, researchers at Manila's University of the Philippines' Population Institute wrote in a recent report. "And when migrants indeed move back, we need to give them enough reason to stay there for good."
The government can tap those who move to the countryside for local infrastructure programmes, Labour Department Director Dominique Rubia-Tutay said at a May 27 congressional hearing. The department also has said returnees can be hired for short-term jobs such as disinfection and sanitation.
The Philippines isn't the only country in South-east Asia grappling with over-urbanisation. With Jakarta suffering massive gridlock and slowly sinking below sea level, Indonesia is planning to carve a new capital out of the Borneo jungle - although that's on hold for now because of the economic crisis. Before that, Malaysia and Myanmar relocated their capitals to newly built cities, partly to relieve the strain on Kuala Lumpur and Yangon.
Governments have tried to reduce the concentration of wealth and people in Manila since the time of Ferdinand Marcos's rule from the 1960s. As the seat of politics and business, Manila accounts for one-third of the Philippine economy, making it a magnet for people from the provinces.
The population of the capital region, which comprises 16 cities and a municipality crammed between the Sierra Madre mountains and Manila Bay, has ballooned from about 4 million in 1970 to 13.7 million as of last year. Including neighbouring towns on the edge of Manila's sprawl, the total urban area contains about 23 million people, according to a report by Demographia.
Resettlement on a large scale requires a comprehensive plan, from ensuring adequate social services to creating jobs - and may even require new laws around land use, said Maria Ela Atienza, a professor of health politics and local governance at the University of the Philippines.
The success of Back to the Province "hinges on the readiness and support of many agencies and local governments", which are already strained by the pandemic, she said.
"It's possible that many of the lofty goals will not be achieved."
Even if city-dwellers move to the countryside, keeping them there is another issue. "In the villages it's cheaper to survive for the time being, but the workers will eventually go where the jobs are," said Chua Hak Bin, a senior economist at Maybank Kim Eng Research Pte. in Singapore. "Like it or not, that's Manila or the rest of the world."
Boosting sustainable employment in the provinces will be crucial.
Duterte wants to industrialise the farm sector and build more infrastructure in the countryside, and businesses could be offered incentives to relocate. Still, jobs must match migrants' skills and the needs of the communities they return to, according to Alvin Ang, director of the Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development.
For people like Gortina, this isn't the time to worry about the long term. After two months begging for food, he said he dreams of the home he grew up in.
Gortina now is housed in a shelter run by a Catholic university in Manila. The school, along with other Christian groups, is helping him prepare to leave for his hometown, the small fishing village of Oslob in the central Philippines.
"I don't know what I'll do when I get back. I'll take care of my aging father for sure," Gortina said. "But work? Whatever's available."