Letter from the Philippines: Life During Coronavirus

Leah Callon Butler works out where to stash her cash and tries to tell fact from fiction amid the coronavirus shutdown in the Philippines.

AccessTimeIconMar 31, 2020 at 5:03 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 8:24 a.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconMar 31, 2020 at 5:03 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 14, 2021 at 8:24 a.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconMar 31, 2020 at 5:03 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 14, 2021 at 8:24 a.m. UTC

Leah Callon-Butler, a CoinDesk columnist, is the director of Emfarsis, a consulting firm focused on the role of technology in advancing economic development in Asia.

About a week ago, my boyfriend and I stood in the kitchen and had a discussion about where we would hide a wad of cash if we were to drain our local bank account. The bookshelf was too obvious. Under the mattress was too cliché. I suggested a Ziplock bag in the freezer and he made a joke about freezing our assets. I followed with one about cold storage

While working in crypto often implies a predisposition for this kind of anti-establishment rhetoric, this is not the kind of conversation I ever thought I’d have in my lifetime. But in the Philippines, where we live, cash is still very much king. Not more than 4 percent of all financial transactions take place online, with that figure as low as 1 percent in provincial areas. Some digital payments services – such as GCash, PayMaya and crypto-enabled Coins.ph – have demonstrated great traction with the banked and unbanked alike, but they are still a long way from mass adoption. 

So, during a crisis, there is little substitute for cold hard cash. And it seems I’m not the only one a tad concerned. After President Rodrigo Duterte announced a one-month enhanced community quarantine, the CEO of Coins.ph took proactive measures to advance all employee salaries for March, citing some doubt the retail banking system could continue without disruption. 

It’s two weeks since that happened and everything here is shut down. All land, sea and air travel is restricted. All public transport is suspended, including Grab (our version of Uber or Lyft). All classes are suspended. The shopping malls are closed, only supermarkets and pharmacies remain open. Restaurants can do takeout but no dine-in. Only one person per household is allowed out at a time and you have to carry a slip from your local elected official to prove where you live. Police patrol the streets and armed military personnel guard the vehicle checkpoints. 

This isn’t the end of the world for we execs who are busy pimping our home office spaces and enjoying new WFH novelties, like wearing pajama pants to online meetings, taking daily arvo naps and gorging on quarantine treats piled high in our cupboards. It’s the less-privileged workers who are left wondering how they’re going to feed their families. 

Spraying the streets
Spraying the streets

In a country where nearly one in five still live below the poverty line, the ability to pay up, cash out and stock up is a luxury reserved for a few. Small businesses account for nearly 98 percent of local firms in the Philippines and 35 percent of the workforce is in informal employment, so there are millions upon millions of people who earn their income in the sari-sari stores, barber shops and beauty salons. It’s the restaurant wait staff. The trike and jeepney drivers. The street food vendors who deliver your afternoon fishball fix or your late-night balut snack. 

The majority of these people live day to day with little to no savings to cushion the blow of a sharp and unexpected economic downturn. As such, there are concerns we will see a spike in crime, as desperate people resort to desperate measures. Word on the street is that our local supermarket was held up last Friday morning – and since they’ve been slammed by panic-buyers, I’m not surprised that an opportunist would make a run for those bulging cash registers – but I couldn’t find a media report to confirm it. 

Who we trust – and how readily we decide to accept their advice – is.. deeply subjective.

There are other reports of looting circulating on social media, but the Philippine National Police say they are all fake news, and, in fact, crime rates have gone down since everyone is staying at home. Perhaps it really is fake news. Or maybe the police are suppressing information in an attempt to curb the growing levels of public anxiety. Or maybe they don’t want to give people ideas. Or maybe it’s a little bit of column A, B and C.

As we settle deeper into quarantine life, and the voices of nervous community folk get louder and louder, it’s getting harder to separate the legitimate information from the fear-mongering nonsense… Eat more bananas if you don’t want to catch the coronavirus. Stock up on alcohol because a liquor ban is coming. Look up to the sky at midnight because that’s when the planes are going to fly over and spray us all with pesticides. 

The tweet from the Secretary of Foreign Affairs
The tweet from the Secretary of Foreign Affairs

Just last week, the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs tweeted that “all previously issued Philippine visas to foreign nationals are deemed cancelled.” This sent me (and apparently plenty of others) into a tailspin, thinking I was about to be kicked out of the country I’ve called home for nearly two years! But when I double-checked the details with my embassy and the Bureau of Immigration, they said there would be no impact on foreigners already in the country. It was only applicable to new entrants. I was fine to stay. 

With tensions at an all-time high, and so much information flying at us from every angle, every second of the day, it’s as easy to misinterpret information as it is to miscommunicate it. I used to think I was pretty good at separating fact from fiction. But over the last couple weeks, I’ve become less sure. Who we trust – and how readily we decide to accept their advice – is a deeply subjective phenomenon that shapes the way we respond to the world around us. And during times of calamity, when everything is turned on its head, we may find ourselves rethinking our earlier methods of deduction. 

Case in point: I’d previously scoffed at the idea of flying pesticides. But then, a friend of mine (who lives nearby me) posted these photos on Facebook of an unidentified person who came around her neighborhood – unannounced – and sprayed all the houses with something that smelled like bleach.   

Then, this week, the local mayor stepped it up a notch again, sending a misting truck to drive around the city on a disinfectant blitz, spraying all public roads and thoroughfares as a preventative measure to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Much to my dismay, there was also plenty of truth behind the rumor about a ban on booze. Last week, when I went downstairs to buy some milk at the convenience store (thankfully, the one at the bottom of our building is still open), I found the sales staff removing all the liquor bottles from the shelves and packing them into boxes. I asked if I could buy some and a staffer said, “Sorry ma’am, we can’t sell alcohol anymore.”

Sure enough, my town is now dry. I can’t even get any grog tacked onto a home delivery food order. Which wouldn’t be much good to me anyway, if all the ATMs turned up empty. I’d struggle to buy anything at all because the vast majority of food vendors and delivery drivers outside Metro Manila are cash only. Crypto would be awesome in this situation (especially since twice as many Filipinos have smartphones than they do bank accounts). But I haven’t yet met any provincial locals willing to accept it. In the meantime, I’m wondering what will be the tipping point when suddenly I’m making a beeline for the ATM, and, as the fake news says, stocking up on bananas. 

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