By Jose Oscar Magpusao
Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte discussed the challenges she faced in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and her strategies to counter them during the #BotoNiJuana: Women as Policymakers event held on August 30, 2021.
SPARK! Philippines, in partnership with the Czech Embassy in Manila and the Galing Pook Foundation, hosted the discussion on how women leaders can streamline women and gender policies, as well their role as leaders in the Philippines.
Mayor Belmonte described her experience with the pandemic as “a baptism of fire of the highest level,” which had started barely eight months after she was sworn in office and now had to keep an estimated 23% of the Metro Manila land area and population safe from the deadly virus.
She recalled the challenge of having to feed more than three million people many times over, assembling a response infrastructure for COVID 19, as well as keeping the most vulnerable sectors of Quezon City safe and cared for.
She then noted a stark disparity in the gender gap after observing and dealing with the pandemic for a year and a half now, citing COVID 19’s effect on healthcare workers tirelessly fighting on the frontlines, the majority of which were women.
“It takes gender sensitive leadership to instinctively know that the pandemic is not gender neutral. Its impact is gender differentiated, and therefore, the actions we take must consider the distinctive social, cultural, and economic roles men and women play in the community,” she said.
“The point I wish to stress here, however, is not what we plan to do in the future to build that better. But the importance of intrinsically viewing all crises under a gender lens, so that we can tailor fit our policy responses, no matter how little time we have to make them,” she added.
On the side of healthcare workers
Belmonte said that, under her leadership, Quezon City took steps into alleviating some of the weight on healthcare workers by: providing mandatory allowances and compensation via ordinances; renting hotels, motels and dormitories near city hospitals, even converting the floor of city hall into a sleeping quarters to provide easily accessible housing and rest; providing shuttle services to quickly and efficiently bring healthcare workers to and from their stations; they also implemented a work scheme that afforded healthcare workers two weeks off after a two week duty, with regular testing after every shift.
In addition to these, she said that Quezon City was also the first to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance, which was a measure taken after hearing countless stories of healthcare workers being thrown out of their temporary lodgings because of their occupation. Belmonte was also the first local government to set up isolation facilities for nursing mothers and babies who tested positive for COVID-19.
“Due to the pandemic, we made sure that access to basic healthcare services, particularly maternal and child health, were not sacrificed,” she said.
Stress and Poverty
She mentioned data pointing to a greater effect of mental and psychological stress on women around the globe than men, stating that the work-from-home and online learning set-ups alongside their duties to the household and to their family members exacerbated the impact on them.
As a response, she said that her leadership heavily invested to ensure schoolchildren had the tools necessary to study from home with individualized tablets and pocket WiFis, as well as school supplies, health kits and vitamins to keep them healthy. Psychologists were also hired to address the mental health of families.
“While it was admittedly challenging to address the many issues that plague women during the pandemic, the city tried its best to provide the needs that women often worry about,” she said.
Mayor Belmonte also took steps to combat the surging unemployment and poverty amidst the pandemic: Four million food packs were distributed in two week intervals; vulnerable families left out of the national government’s cash aid program were given a sum of 4000 pesos; a special program called Kalingang QC distributed 2000 pesos to seniors, solo parents, PWDs and lactating mothers; Kalingang QC: Para sa Negosyo, another program of Mayor Belmonte, is a three month wage subsidy program targeting small businesses to minimize job loss and help keep them in business; Women cooperatives were also formed to operate urban farms established in the city, as well as to sew masks and PPEs to the government and the private sector, eventually spawning QC essentials, a hygiene product line sold in artesanal bazaars organized by the city and contributing partners; and recent programs such as Kalingang QC for displaced workers and Pangkabuhayang QC, a capital assistance program for women entrepreneurs are also underway.
“The pandemic also harnessed voluntarism among women in response to the calls to assist sick babies, lactating mothers donating surplus breast milk to our human milk bank, and surprisingly, the pandemic years yielded more donations than in past years. And therefore, through the voluntarism of our lactating mothers, many children, including those that were afflicted with COVID-19, were given breast milk to nurture them,” she said.
Crime and Social Issues
Belmonte said that she was also concerned over the exponential increase of domestic violence cases and teenage pregnancies during the pandemic, which was why Quezon City set up hotlines specifically addressing domestic violence and abuse and abuse and also opened Bahay Kanlungan, a fully staffed shelter for victims of gender based abuse which she referred to as a “one stop shop protection center.” To address the increase in teenage pregnancies, the city formed the Inter-agency Batang Ina Task Force, which will craft programs to assist young mothers and prevent their numbers from growing.
She continued by mentioning her concerns over online trafficking and the lesh trade, which was why her city partnered with the Philippine National Police (PNP) Cybercrime Unit and the Department of Information and Communications (DICT) Cybercrime Coordinating Center to combat perpetrators.
During her forum, Mayor Belmonte celebrated their city’s efforts, remarking that they nearly reached their goal of vaccinating 1.7 million individuals in the city and were close to achieving population protection.
“We take pride in having vaccinated all 600 women deprived of liberty in our correctional system as part of our ‘No Woman Left Behind’ program given the high risk environment in which they live. The program also provides them with interventions in education, health care, and livelihoods. It has been said that we should never waste a crisis,” she said.
“This pandemic has taught us that even in unplanned and unexpected circumstances we must be predisposed to responding with gender sensitive mindsets, we have seen how pandemics, climate related disturbances, and other disasters and even threats of terrorism have been successfully navigated by women leaders who naturally take into consideration the welfare of women and children as they are the most affected by all crisis situations,” she added.