In January, life in my parish of Turda – a scattered community in an impoverished part of the southern Philippines – went on as normal. We celebrated our fiesta – the feast of St Joseph Freinademetz – in grand style. All our 13 mission stations, scattered around seven barangays (villages) and six sitios (hamlets) on a number of islands, took part.
Our priority is to reach out to people of all cultures and creeds, particularly the Tagbanua cultural minority – one of many in the Philippines – who are a majority in our area. In February we conducted a catechetical seminar for lay readers and the parish youths. Then, in March the priests of our vicariate, Taytay, held their general assembly.
It was due to run until March 14. But two days before that President Rodrigo Duterte declared the whole nation under lockdown and community quarantine.
Returning to the parish I wrote a letter advising all parishioners to follow the government order and to inform them that all activities of the parish had been suspended until further notice. And I called on everyone to pray the Oratio Imperata – a prayer used in times of crisis – every day at 12 noon and 8pm.
Lockdown measures were tight, movements where highly restricted and everyone was issued a quarantine pass to use while travelling. More than 15 checkpoints were set up in our parish; if you could not convince the officials manning them that you had a good reason to travel, you would be sent home.
The coastguard was also deployed to watch the coastline of our area which faces the South China Sea. Municipal officials asked all foreigners to leave and two charter flights were arranged for them. I was allowed to stay because of my role as a missionary priest.
People were in fear and some felt the world was coming to an end. Lots of fake news was being circulated about the coronavirus.
At the time of lockdown, the Philippines had only 70 coronavirus cases. By March 31 the government could not contain the spread and the numbers were rising speedily. This led to the extension of community quarantine to April 15.
It was in April that things turned sour for our parishioners. Sons and daughters who lost jobs in the nearby town had come home to be quarantined here. Most of them are workers in resorts, hotels, travel and tour agencies, van drivers and construction workers.
Eighty per cent of our parishioners are fisherfolk and 10 per cent rice farmers. With family homes at full capacity and the inability to go fishing or travel freely to get food, supplies ran dry. Even in the municipal markets there were no vegetables or grain. Government officials would come once a week to supply rice. But it was not really enough for survival.
On April 4 we received the first call from our remotest mission stations, two hours away if the sea is calm and up to four if it is rough. This mission station is totally cut off from the main island and there are others like that. Their leader told me: “Father, we are starving here. Please help us. We need food.” From that moment I could not sleep.
The next day was Palm Sunday; about 20 people turned up for Mass. Afterwards they went around our village collecting rice. We were able to give each stranded household five kilos of rice.
On April 15 the lockdown was extended again and this just made things worse. As the government was battling with the virus, they promised to give to every household the sum of 5,000 Philippine pesos (£78), but in our area of more than 14,000 families, only about 800 families got the money.
Early one morning, seven boats from some of our mission stations arrived at the parish. They told me they had received news that there was rice for distribution. I was in shock because we had nothing. I sent them back but told them I would try my best and get back to them. This put me under stress and restlessness as more calls were coming in.
In the midst of all this, I decided to submit a project to the British Catholic charity SPICMA (Special Projects in Christian Missionary Areas) and a grant of £3,000 was sent to Turda parish as food aid. This gave some sort of relief. Those communities completely cut off from the mainland were our first target.
On April 30 movement restrictions were eased: people could move around within the community, do some fishing, and light farming and gardening.
But the lockdown had already plunged our parish into a food crisis. Some mission stations were still struggling. Luckily for us, Missio sent us a grant of £5,000 through the Mill Hill Society. With this we were able to reach a capacity of 90 per cent distribution of rice.
The generosity of SPICMA and Mission has healed people psychologically, emotionally, spiritually and physically. The one problem which was hunger and a basic need for life once solved, other higher needs could be embraced.
When you rise in the morning and the children are looking up to you for food and you have nothing to offer, it can be traumatising for a parent or guardian. This is what some parishioners went through during the lockdown.
Now things are more balanced since our province – Palawan in the south of the Philippines – is categorised as low risk, so there is a lot of economic activity going on. People can go out now and look for their daily bread to feed their families.
The moment when we were stressed and traumatised is over. While going around for Masses we continue to call on the people to remain calm, trust in God, acknowledge what the government officials are doing and remain connected and bonded like never before. We are healing as one.
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