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Bodies of evidence

Gay apps have been criticized for (re)introducing superficiality and “toxic masculinity” in the gay and bi community. But for Evan Tan of Blued, blaming just one element re this may be understandable yet still shortsighted since “changing mindsets and beliefs needs the help of the whole community.”

IMAGE BY COMFREAK FROM PIXABAY.COM

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When MC created an account in three gay apps using the handle “I am Effeminate”, he claimed to have received “unwanted – many of them unsolicited – personal attacks through PMs (personal messages),” he said. Supposedly, “random guys would message me even if I didn’t message them first, just to attack my very being.”

He had been told – among others – “Tsupi (colloquial for ‘Get out of here)!”, “This is no place for you; this is just for us bi men!”, You’re malnourished; only muscular men should be here!”, “Go to hell, fag!”, and so on.

Just as it is in mainstream (hetero) population, this shaming of the “other” – i.e. those who do not fit the stereotypical concepts of how community members are supposed to look like/act like – even from within the LGBT community itself is actually already prevalent. But, as MC’s experience may highlight, it can be argued that gay and bi apps are helping “normalize” or are even popularize this.

NO pa-ghirl (effeminate) allowed. No fatsos. No oldies. ONLY those from premier schools in Metro Manila need send message. Fuck off trans. Asians NOT allowed. Only interested in White men; everyone else, leave.

These are but some of the very real statements included in profiles of gay app users, often taken as mere reflections of “preferences” instead of blatant (internal) discrimination.

MC – who is still in his early 20s – admitted “na nasaktan din ako, siyempre (of course I was also hurt/offended),” he said. “Wala naman akong ginawa para kutyain (It’s not like I did something to merit the attacks).”

He admitted feeling “nanliit (belittled)” and crestfallen, as if “wala ka talagang silbi (you’re really useless).”

MC would – most times – shrug the “attacks” off; but then “nangyayari pa rin (they’d happen again).” And so he said he is regularly reminded “na iba ako (of my ‘otherness’).”

MC’s case is – unfortunately – not uncommon.

One’s weight is, of course, but one of the identifiers of “otherness”. Others include ethnicity, religious affiliation, and – as in MC’s case – effeminacy.
PHOTO BY PIXABAY.COM FROM PEXELS.COM

SAD STATE TO BE IN

This treatment of “otherness” in gay apps was already scientifically considered. For instance, in 2016, a study published in the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity suggested that antifat bias (with weight among the identifiers of “otherness”) is a “challenge for many members of the gay community, even those who are not technically overweight”.

Do gay men hate fat people?

 

For “Fat Chance! Experiences and Expectations of Antifat Bias in the Gay Male Community”, Olivia Foster-Gimbel and Renee Engeln conducted two studies exploring antifat bias among gay men.

The first study explored experiences of antifat bias among gay men and the body image correlates of these experience. Involving 215 participants (gay men aged from 18 to 78), who completed measures of antifat bias, body image disturbance, and open-ended questions about their experience with antifat bias, this study found that over one third of gay men reported directly experiencing antifat bias.  The surprising part? Many of them were not even overweight using common body mass index (BMI) guidelines.

According to this study, the most common type of antifat bias reported was rejection by potential romantic partners on the basis of weight (e.g. No fatsos). The antifat bias experienced and witnessed was associated with several types of body image disturbance.

A follow-up was done to the first study. This time, a comparison was made between gay and heterosexual college men’s expectations of antifat bias from a potential romantic partner. Participants rated how likely certain outcomes would be if they saw an overweight man hit on an attractive target (a man for gay participants or a woman for heterosexual participants). Not surprisingly, gay men reported greater likelihood that the overweight man would be blatantly ignored, treated rudely, or mocked behind his back if he approached an attractive potential romantic partner.

To top it all off, the gay male surveyed also reportedly expect other gay men to show these antifat biases when looking for a romantic partner.

But to begin with, why the hate?

In Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (2014), Dr. Jason Whitesel interviewed members of Girth & Mirth, an international organization supposed to celebrate “big men and their admirers”. Interestingly, Whitesel found that many members had internalized a great deal of the bias that they experienced from outside their community.

The sadder part of the internalized hatred is the dissociation, noted Whitesel, with some big men confessing that “they want to dissociate themselves from other people who are fat, as if fatness were contagious.”

One’s weight is, of course, but one of the identifiers of “otherness”. Others include ethnicity, religious affiliation, and – as in MC’s case – effeminacy.

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BODY REPRESENTATIONS

This is why, according to Evan Tan, country marketing manager for the Philippines of Blued, it is relevant to introduce different (body) representations. And here, apps (and those running them) need to join the conversation.

Evan Tan recognizes that platforms like Blued “can and will be used by people in different ways.” However, “we believe that showing the diversity in the gay community will help dispel implicit (and maybe explicit) biases.”
PHOTO BY PIXABAY.COM FROM PEXELS.COM

“People are more than just stereotypes and labels. It’s easy and convenient to think of people as templates, but there’s a larger story behind every person than the labels we give each other,” Tan said.  This is why – at least for Blued as a social networking app – “we want to allow those conversations to happen.”

Tan recognizes that platforms like Blued “can and will be used by people in different ways.” However, “we believe that showing the diversity in the gay community will help dispel implicit (and maybe explicit) biases.”

How does a platform like Blued do this?

“To encourage authenticity in Blued, we ask people to actually verify their profiles,” Tan said.

Here, authentication is seen as antidote to fakeness (e.g. making fake profiles with fake pics placed just to conform to stereotyped notions of beauty), since authenticity could mean capturing the diversity seen in the real world.

“We think it’s time for gay men to be truly out and proud of who they are, and to not hide behind headless torsos or fake photos,” Tan said, adding that in his observation, “I’ve seen more faces in Blued than in any other app out there; and more people are authenticating their profiles as well.”

Blued also makes sure it “we feature diverse people on the site – e.g. in advertising,” Tan said.

And to promote diversity not just in body representations but even in expressions of ideas, “here in the Philippines, we’ve reached out to different organizations, such as UP Babaylan (the LGBT organization of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City), to create community pages on Blued. We hope that these will help create a community of diverse opinions and foster healthy conversations on what we find attractive and acceptable, and why.”

Reaching out to communities is necessary, said Tan, because for him, dealing with issues of representation in the LGBT (in this case in particular, gay and bi men) needs everyone’s help. Tan particularly believes that placing the blame – so to speak – on just one element is shortsighted. “We think that this issue can’t be solved by just one app or feature, in such a short time,” he said. “Changing mindsets and beliefs needs the help of the whole community. We’re (just) happy to help advance the discussion in the ways we can.”

WANTED: COMMUNITY EFFORT

While it’s easy to pinpoint these gay apps as the culprit of promoting the idealized gay male beauty, Blued’s Tan believes that the problem is bigger than just the apps, which may just be magnifying the issue.

“People are more than just stereotypes and labels. It’s easy and convenient to think of people as templates, but there’s a larger story behind every person than the labels we give each other,” Blued’s Evan Tan said.  This is why – at least for Blued as a social networking app – “we want to allow those conversations to happen.”
PHOTO BY TIM MOSSHOLDER FROM PEXELS.COM

“The challenge, of course, is always that you need to slowly loosen the hold of unhealthy cultural baggage that people cling on to,” Tan said. “This is a long process that can’t be solved by just one person (I personally don’t believe in savior narratives — it’s cute to say that one person or group magically saves everyone, but it’s never the case most of the time). Instead, you need the involvement of different groups of different people from different backgrounds to create long-lasting change. How do we do that? How do we spearhead the conversation without judgment?”

At least some apps are taking initiatives to introduce diversity. Grindr has “tribes” to identify the “types” of people – e.g. twink, daddy, bear, jock, and so on. PlanetRomeo has a category for “body type”.  And perhaps to limit what could turn out to be hateful and hurtful engagements, Jack’d and Hornet allow their users to filter their searches, with categories including age, height, weight and ethnicity.

Blued, by the way, ups the ante by allowing people of the same persuasions to “gather” – that is, “Blued actually allows you to add friends, join groups, and even broadcast your hobbies and interests to other people. We encourage people to keep it wholesome, because ultimately, they can always go to other apps if they’re just solely looking for sex. We want Blued to be more than just that. We want it to be a safe space where people can be who they are, without fear of judgment or discrimination,” Tan said.

One Blued group, for instance, is BEAR CLUB, which was organized by one Titus_31 this June “so that those like us (bears) can congregate safely,” he said to Outrage Magazine.

In a few months, the group (also known as GC, or “group chat”) already garnered a hundred members, and – added Mhakkie23, one of the administrators of this group – “I’d say that 90% of our members are extra friendly.”

For both Titus_31 and Mhakkie23, this affability is worth highlighting because of the “seeming continuing limited spaces for diversity in our midst.” And so, as “as a rule of the GC, we are anti-discrimination of (the big bodied) and we always remind the members of this. It helps us gather like-minded people; and in this way, nakakatulong siya (it helps a lot),” Titus_31 said.

“It was surprisingly easy to grow the group,” Mhakkie23 added, “since marami palang katulad namin (there are many of us) out there.”

There are also apps that actually find ways to sanction those who are disrespectful of diversity. For instance, WooPlus – which is for “bigger women, big guys, and curve lovers” – allows users to flag harassing behavior by reviewing, rating and commenting on the profiles of people they’re messaging with. Those who get enough poor reviews and ratings will be automatically — and permanently — banned from the site.

EVOLVING (VIRTUAL) WORLD

Not all app-related experiences of people stereotypically branded as “others” are bad, of course.

Based in Davao City, Deaf gay man Prime opened an account in Blued three months ago. Mainly, he said to Outrage Magazine in Filipino Sign Language (FSL), “I wanted to reach out to other (MSM) in the Philippines.”

Yes, 37-year-old Prime said he gets to occasional brush-offs (e.g. “Not my type”), though in his estimation, “these are not (necessarily) because I’m Deaf but because of preference.” He has yet to be told upfront he isn’t liked because he is differently-abled. In fact, for a Deaf gay man like Prime, using the app make conversing easier “compared with chatting with someone in person because they usually don’t know  FSL. In Blued, I just tell them to ‘Use English please’, and we are already able to communicate/understand each other.”

Prime recognizes that “apps haven’t perfected yet their approaches to be more inclusive of people like me, but I’m still hopeful it could help link me with other MSM. Who knows, I could even find love from here,” Prime laughed.

For chub_cub, “whether in apps or in real life, stereotyping has always been an issue. I don’t think it’s any app’s fault; instead, it is the (wider) culture that wrongly influences discrimination within the MSM community that is to be blamed,” he said. “A lot needs to be done to deal with this. And for me, showing up to showcase diversity is a good first step.”
PHOTO BY PIXABAY.COM FROM PEXELS.COM

In another gay app, Outrage Magazine interviewed a person living with HIV. “I was devastated when I found out my HIV positive status in 2010,” he said. Following then, he opened accounts in various gay apps to find other PLHIVs. And surprisingly, he said, “guys were interested to get to know me…”

He admitted that “there are a handful of guys who can be so judgmental even in apps,” but having this persona in apps can be helpful particularly for PLHIVs not only because it links them with others “in the same boat as oneself” but also because “it’s easier to come out as PLHIV in these platforms because you are not really seen.” And so this way, “it can even be therapeutic.”

And still in Blued is Mandaluyong City-based 30-year-old chub_cub, who opened a profile in October 2016 to “at first monitor what my ex-BF was doing there,” he laughed. But “after our break up, the app became handy as a means to talk to a lot of people.”

chub_cub – who occasionally goes live in Blued (one of the app’s key features) to prove that he is not a poser – eventually gained over 700 followers. And he credits this to authenticity. “I may not be a hunk, but at least people enjoy how I stay true to myself,” chub_cub said.

And so for chub_cub, “apps can promote diversity in the MSM community. There are apps with certain groups that you can search and become part of it. Blued, too, has a group chat platform where you can talk with people of your same interests,” he said.

Blued’s Evan Tan believes technology (including apps) should be treated as a tool that can – perhaps – help promote diversity, instead of pigeonholing. “Let it personally help us ask why we find something attractive, and then strike a balance between appreciating ourselves while not becoming hateful.”
PHOTO BY PIXABAY.COM FROM PEXELS.COM

For chub_cub, “whether in apps or in real life, stereotyping has always been an issue. I don’t think it’s any app’s fault; instead, it is the (wider) culture that wrongly influences discrimination within the MSM community that is to be blamed,” he said. “A lot needs to be done to deal with this. And for me, showing up to showcase diversity is a good first step.”

For Blued’s Tan, apps should be treated as such: a tool that can – perhaps – help promote diversity, instead of pigeonholing. “Let it personally help us ask why we find something attractive, and then strike a balance between appreciating ourselves while not becoming hateful,” Tan said.

App user MC still has accounts in numerous apps, and he still goes by the name of “I am Effeminate”. “I’m not giving up hope,” he said, “that I may meet someone who will accept me for me while here. So far, may mababait naman (there are some nice guys).” And because “I have seen how nice some people are in apps, I know they can’t be all that bad. I suppose we just continue reaching out to show to the world that, yes, magkaiba-iba ang tao (people are different) and there’s beauty in this diversity.” – WITH INTERVIEWS BY MICHAEL DAVID dela Cruz TAN

MAIN IMAGE BY COMFREAK FROM PIXABAY.COM

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Call him A.M. (short for Albert Magallanes, obviously; though - he says - also to "signify being on the go, as people tend to be in the mornings"). A graduate of BS Physical Therapy (in DLS Health Sciences Institute), he found his calling ("Sort of," he laughed) attempting to organize communities ("While having fun in the process," he beamed). For instance, in Las Piñas where he is based, he helps helm an MSM group that has evolved from just offering social events to aiding its members as needed. He now writes for Outrage Magazine as the Las Piñas (and southern) correspondent.

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Enter the alter world

Welcome to the alter world, where people tweet and retweet their or other people’s sexual engagements. Though often maligned, it actually also highlights formation of friendships, info sharing, emotional support, and even provision of a ‘safe space’ for those who wish to express their sexuality.

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Some time back, Kurt (a.k.a. @MoanerBottom) opened a Twitter account as a form of revenge. “I found out that my ex had an ‘alter’ account and he was fooling around with different people,” he recalled. And so “I wanted to prove to him that I can also do the same thing.”

Little did Kurt know at that time that he would become a mainstay in the alter world/community. A few months since opening his own alter account, he garnered over 130,000 followers, all of them craving – and even waiting – for what he would post, usually dominated by sexual encounters (“kalat videos,” he calls them) with mostly students, including a basketball varsitarian “who likes to penetrate deeply”, a Blue Eagle who allowed for his orgasm to be videoed, a Tamaraw who also allowed himself to be videoed as he orgasmed, and bending for a Red Lion.

“I must admit that I am a shy person in real life,” Kurt said. But “here in Twitter, it is like I have less shame and more courage to do kalat (contextually: shameless) posts and videos.”

Kurt is, obviously, only one of the people – not just Filipinos – with alter accounts, which many like him, say is similar to a “pseudonym — like Batman to Bruce Wayne, or Superman to Clark Kent; where people can have a separate account from their primary accounts, usually used to express themselves more ‘wildly’ yet more ‘discreetly’/anonymously.”

And so welcome to the alter world, where people tweet and retweet their or other people’s sexual “collaborations”, hookups, fetishes, fantasies and social engagements, with the audiences often never really knowing the content generators/producers/distributors.

Getting noticed

That the alter world is often dominated by sexual content is a given.

Onin (a.k.a. @Onin_NuezPH), for example, sees his alter account “as an avenue for me to express myself and my sexuality. I am able to let everyone know within the community about my sexual desires without the fear of being judged.”

Looking back, it was actually “a friend who is an alter too introduced me in this alter community,” Onin said.

One of the early instances Onin trended was when some of his nude photos circulated on Twitter. Many got curious, asking the person who previously reacted or shared the photos if there were more.

It whetted Onin’s interest; and so he started posting more photos and short videos. His followers quickly increased, reaching more than 145,000.

Taking pride that he is one of the more talked about alters out there, Onin has produced content that may seem trivial… but these have been keeping the alter community and lurkers interested, from balancing a shampoo bottle on top of his erect penis, sharing a photo of his endowment while asking his followers if they want to kneel in front him, a comparison of the length of a deodorant spray with his penis, wearing a see-through underwear, and teasing his latest sexual collaboration.

Standing out

Standing out in a platform where hundreds (even thousands) of alters saturate news feeds is a challenge. After all, it is not an easy feat to attract someone’s attention — what more to make them like, share, or follow an account.

For FUCKER Daddy (a.k.a. @ako_daddy), therefore, it all comes down to the type of content being posted, not just being well-endowed, willing to perform bareback sex, or how often the face is shown.

A licensed professional who has a son, FUCKER Daddy started as a “lurker’ (i.e. one who lurks, or just consumes content/views profiles) on Twitter. At that time, he wrote “my real-life sex stories, hoping it will pick up from there,” he recalled. “Unfortunately, alter peeps seem to be more into live action.”

And so FUCKER Daddy met someone from Telegram, without realizing that the person was “sort of (a) big (personality) on Twitter.” This guy discretely took a short clip of their sexual encounter, and then posted it on his alter account. “It was hit. (And) the rest is history.”

By August 2019, FUCKER Daddy said his inbox started receiving direct messages from different users – e.g. asking for more, congratulating him, wanting to collaborate, and so on.

He actually now has several sex videos in his cam. But he still doesn’t make recording the primary thing when engaging in sex “as my goal is to have hookups; videos are only secondary.”

Besides, he said that “I do not want to spoil the moment for sex and think only of it as merely for Twitter.”

But every time FUCKER Daddy posts a video, he said his over 95,000 followers respond to them “with enthusiasm, getting more curious and intrigued.”

Making a living

The concept of alter, however, isn’t set in stone.

For one, there are actually alter accounts whose owners prefer to use their real names and show their faces (like Onin), mixing their personal and private lives along the way. Following the Batman/Bruce Wayne and Superman/Clark Kent analogy, there are also people who follow the Tony Stark/Iron Man mantra, i.e. openly announcing that they are one and the same.

Secondly, monetizing is actually possible.

Also, one may be part of the alter community without knowing it – i.e. one engages in alter activities without recognizing it as such.

The likes of John (a.k.a. @johnnephelim on Twitter and Instagram), who has over 130,000 followers, comes to mind, using Twitter as a platform “to promote a job.”

“I do not even know that I am involved in the world of alter,” John said, adding that he did not even know what the term meant until it was presented to him. Instead, his account is used to “promote my RentMen and OnlyFans accounts”, just as he also promotes his availability for “personal appointment to people.”

John actually used to work as a brand ambassador, but because of this change in his work, he “can no longer work (in) that (field) because I am doing porn.”

He admitted that “this type of thing is double-edged.” On the one hand, “you can earn a great amount of money,” he said, “but there will be sacrifices.”

He noted, for instance, that the perception of people about me changed; most people judge you right away because of what you do, and not because of who you are as a person.”

But he ignores the naysayers; “I do not mind because this job gives more than what I expected!”

Like John, Onin also promotes his JustFor.Fans (JFF) account on Twitter to respond to the requests of his followers.

“They (my followers) want to see me in action and they are willing to subscribe too,” Onin said, with his exclusive content including: he and his partner having sex, and collaborations with other alters. “You will not earn that much, but pretty enough to compensate for the contents that we are posting.”

Not all alters think alike, obviously. FUCKER Daddy, for instance, won’t monetize his content, saying: “I value sex as it was created. I never sell any (videos) because I think it is something that is worth free. I simply treated it as making memories while those (who) watch put up the numbers.”

Behind the handles

The world of alter has actually already caught the attention of researchers.

For instance, in a study by Samuel Piamonte of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development, Mark Quintos of De La Salle University Manila, and Minami Iwayama of Polytechnic University of the Philippines, it was found that the alter community may seem overtly sexual, but there is more to it than that.
“The sexual aspect of alter is the core of alter, but it has been enriched by more complex social benefits to users such as including formation of new friendships, sharing of information and advocacies, reciprocations of emotional support, and provision of a ‘safe space’ for those who wish to express their sexuality but find that doing so outside of the alter community could be met with stigma from their peers and family.”

Kurt sees his alter account as an avenue for him to tap his inner self and show the Twitter universe his kalat. Onin uses his alter account to broadcast his sexual side (together with his partner). And FUCKER Daddy uses his alter account as “a constant source of info, hookups, convo… and to learn social demographics as well.”

The evolution, indeed, continues.

Hate from within the community

Yes, yes, yes… with increasing numbers of followers, multiple likes and shares, and the creation of alter “celebrities”, this has not been spared from criticisms.

And sadly, said Kurt, at least in the Philippine setting, the prejudice against alters comes from within the community. “Kapuwa LGBT ang nagsisiraan at nagpapataasan sa isa’t-isa,” he said. “I know… that I cannot please everyone (but) for me it is okay, as long as I know that I am not doing anything wrong.”

Perhaps a “surprise” is the audience’s inability to “appreciate” the free content given them, with Kurt noting that there are times when “they are also pissed off with the things I post.”

This seems to contradict the findings of Piamonte, Quintos and Iwayama, since – here – the alter community can become a fearful place, too.

John, like Kurt, noted how people resort to demeaning others when they do not fit preconceived notions. But he just laughs this off, saying: “Do not hate me because I look good and make money (from) it. Life is too short to be a bitter person. If you do not like what we do, then shut the fuck up.”

The Pandora’s box, so to speak has been opened; and lessons learned along the way can just “make you stronger and bring out the best in you,” said Onin, who like many alters, “just focus on my goals.” And it is exactly because of the existence of this interchange – the content creation, and the love-hate reaction to what’s created – that alter is not going to disappear anytime soon (or at all).

Details and photos of sexual encounters were lifted from the Twitter accounts of the interviewees.

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Anti-discrimination ordinance passes final reading in Zamboanga City; awaits mayor’s signature

Zamboanga joins the growing number of local government units that now has an anti-discrimination ordinance.

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The rainbow rises in Zamboanga City.

The 1st class highly urbanized city in the Zamboanga Peninsula of the Philippines, Zamboanga, joins the growing number of local government units (LGUs) that now has an anti-discrimination ordinance (ADO).

As helmed by Hon. Lilibeth Macrohon Nuño, the ADO passed the third and final reading at the Sangguniang Panglunsod of the City of Zamboanga on October 6.

The ADO is actually not only specific to sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Instead, it is a more comprehensive ADO that also prohibits discrimination based on race, color, civil and social status, language, religion, national or social origin, culture and ethnicity, property, birth or age, disability and health status, creed and ideological beliefs, and physical appearance.

The ADO now goes to the desk of Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar for signing.

As the sixth most populous and third largest city by land area in the Philippines, Zamboanga has a population of 861,799 people (as of 2015). The ADO was pushed by local LGBTQIA organization, Mujer-LGBT Organization Inc.

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Covid-19 and the freelancer’s dilemma

The Philippines is home to a “vibrant gig economy”, with an estimated 1.5 million freelancers in the country. But Covid-19 responses actually do not include them, so what happens to them now?

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Kate is a visual artist. She resigned from her day job to pursue her passion two years ago. Painting and creating origami, her income mainly came from the sales of her artworks; supplemented by home-based art classes to elementary and high school students.  

Nicole is a freelance makeup artist. Her clients varied from celebrities to socialites to brides and debutantes… and everything in between. Nicole used to earn a minimum of P3,000 per client, with the amount increasing depending on the type of service being offered.

Lumina is a drag artist, a common face in dance clubs and in events. Aside from her “talent fee”, she also used to get “tips” from customers.

But when the Covid-19 related Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) took effect in Luzon starting last March 17, their capacity to earn a living was also put on hold. And people like them – a.k.a. “freelancers” – are many.

In May 2019, PayPal (the payment system company) reported that the Philippines is home to a “vibrant gig economy”, with an estimated 1.5 million freelancers in the country. In fact, this is a segment that is fast becoming an influential part of the Filipino workforce and a key engine driving the growth of the country’s economy.

The terms used to refer to them may vary – e.g. In October 2019, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that of the 73,528,000 population in the Philippines, ages 15 years and over, 95.5% are employed. And 25% of them are “self-employed workers”. Freelancers also fall under PSA’s categorization.

And ECQ has been devastating to these Filipinos.

“The current lockdown left us, freelance workers, in a complete halt — events and shows were cancelled. It technically made us jobless since we do not have the option of working from home,” Lumina said.

Like Lumina, Kate said freelancer workers are “so tied to the situation.”

“Even if I want to sell my work or earn a living, I cannot do anything right now,” Kate added.

Painting and creating origami, Kate’s income mainly came from the sales of her artworks; supplemented by home-based art classes to elementary and high school students. Everything was affected by Covid-19.
Photo by Fallon Michael from Unsplash.com

What gov’t support?

There are supposed to be government support for workers affected by the ECQ.

In a statement released last March 17, for instance, the Department of Labor and Employment stated that they “may be able to address the pressing needs of the rest of the affected workers in the quarantined areas.” 

DOLE developed the following mitigating measures: “Covid-19 Adjustment Measures Program” (CAMP), “Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers” (TUPAD), and “DOLE-AKAP for OFWs”.  

CAMP will serve “affected workers regardless of status (i.e. permanent, probationary, or contractual), those employed in private establishments whose operations are affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic.” TUPAD “aims to contribute to poverty reduction and inclusive growth.” The program is “a community based (municipality/barangay) package of assistance that provides temporary wage employment.” And the DOLE-AKAP specifically caters to overseas Filipino workers who have been displaced due to the imposition of lockdown or community quarantine, or have been infected with the disease.   

DOLE reiterated that the only qualified beneficiaries are the underemployed, self-employed and displaced marginalized workers. To help these people, “employment” is offered – i.e. the nature of work shall be the disinfection or sanitation of their houses and its immediate vicinity, and the duration will be limited to 10 days. The person will be receiving 100% of the prevailing highest minimum wage in the region.

Pre-Covid-19, Nicole could earn from P3,000 per client; nowadays, she relies solely on what her barangay provides: relief goods and minimal ayuda.

Another government body eyeing to supposedly help is the Social Security System (SSS), where employees of small businesses may apply to be considered for the Small Business Wage Subsidy (SBWS) Program. 

To add, the government agency is also geared up to pay some 30,000 to 60,000 workers projected to be unemployed due to possible layoffs or closures of Covid-19 affected private companies.

Some arts-focused institutions like the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) also developed their own “disaster-triggered funding mechanism” to help address the “lack of support from the government.” In FDCP’s case, the program aims to help displaced freelance audio-visual workers—from talents, to production staff and technical crew members.

But note how all efforts are mum on freelance workers.

For drag performer Lumina, Covid-19 “technically made us jobless since we do not have the option of working from home.”

Making ends meet

And so many are left to do something they never did – i.e. rely on others just to survice.

In the case of Nicole, she relies solely on what her barangay provides: relief goods and minimal ayuda

Sobrang hirap ng sitwasyon ngayon. Hindi ko alam kung saan ako kukuha ng panggastos. ‘Yung ipon ko paubos na, tapos kailangan ko pa magbayad ng renta sa bahay at ibang bills (The situation now is very hard. I don’t know where to get money to spend. My savings are almost gone, and yet I still have to pay for my rent and the bills),” she said.

Lumina, for her part, is “lucky” because she still lives with her family, and “they have been providing for my basic needs since the lockdown started.”

Her luck isn’t necessarily shared by many – e.g. Human Rights Watch earlier reported that “added family stresses related to the Covid-19 crisis – including job loss, isolation, excessive confinement, and anxieties over health and finances – heighten the risk of violence in the home… The United Nations secretary-general has reported a ‘horrifying‘ global surge in domestic-based violence linked to Covid-19, and calls to helplines in some countries have reportedly doubled.”

To add: “In a household of six members, I think the goods that we are receiving from the government is not enough,” Lumina said, hoping that “every freelance worker also receive benefits from the government that would in a way cover the earnings that we lost.”

Bleak future?

In 2017, when PayPal conducted a survey of over 500 freelancers in the Philippines, the results showed that the country had a “very optimistic freelancer market”, with 86% of freelancers claiming they anticipate future growth in their businesses. In fact, at that time, 23% of the respondents said their business is growing steadily, while 46% said their business is stable.

But Covid-19 turned everything upside-down for many.

There are rays of hope.

Toptal survey, for instance, pointed out that 90% of companies depend on freelancers to augment their professional workforce, and – get this – 76% of surveyed executives intend to increase use of independent professionals to provide expertise either to supplement full-time talent or to access skills and experiences they lack in their workforce. 

This may be particularly true to those whose works do not involve face-to-face engagement (e.g. graphics design, BPOs).

And so for the likes of Kate, Nicole and Lumina — and many other freelance workers for that matter, whose works rely on being with people — the way to get through now is to just to make do with what they can grasp on… while trapped inside and hoping for a better future, where reliance (including in a non-responsive government) is not in the picture… 

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Keeping the faith at the time of COVID-19

Many ask where God is at the time of #Covid19, including #LGBTQIA people who – prior to this – already experienced difficulties because of their #SOGIESC, and now have a hard time with their expression of faith. But #LGBTQIA faith leaders say that this is as good a time as any to also highlight humanity and, yes, the rainbow #pride.

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LGBTQIA people are “no strangers to isolation, hardships and the stress of being alone,” said Bb. Kakay M. Pamaran, Director for Field Education of the Union Theological Seminary Philippines. And while stressing that she is, in no way, trying to “romanticize this, but I think of all people, we know what this level of isolation feels like because we’ve been there… many of us have been there.”

Bb. Pamaran was referring to the isolation/stress of being alone and hardships brought about by Covid-19, with many countries – the Philippines included – forcing people to stay indoors, else risk getting infected. The World Health Organization (WHO), itself, acknowledged that “as the coronavirus pandemic rapidly sweeps across the world, it is inducing a considerable degree of fear, worry and concern in the population at large and among certain groups in particular…”

There are those whose (religious) faith is getting them through; but there are also those who, in times like this, start questioning their faith. This includes LGBTQIA people whose lives, as it is, are often marked by religious persecution. And so for those of faith and who belong to the rainbow family… how does one keep the faith at the time of Covid-19?

RELIGIOUS FERVOR

“When people are afraid, they turn to God,” Bb. Pamaran said. “And the church, for the longest time, has been God’s mouthpiece.”

She, therefore, believes that “the church has a huge responsibility where this is concerned.”

This April, the WHO released “Practical considerations and recommendations for religious leaders and faith-based communities in the context of COVID-19”, which eyes to provide “practical guidance and recommendations to support the special role of religious leaders, faith-based organizations, and faith communities in COVID-19 education, preparedness, and response.”

WHO’s practical recommendations include: discouraging non-essential physical gatherings and, instead, organizing virtual gatherings through live-streaming, TV, radio, social media, et cetera; regulating the number and flow of people entering, attending or departing worship spaces to ensure safe distancing; management of pilgrim sites to respect physical distancing; and actual isolation of those who get ill/develop Covid-19 symptoms.

As stated by the WHO: Faith-based organizations (FBOs) “are a primary source of support, comfort, guidance, and direct health care and social service, for the communities they serve. Religious leaders of faith-based organizations and communities of faith can share health information to protect their own members and wider communities, which may be more likely to be accepted than from other sources. They can provide pastoral and spiritual support during public health emergencies and other health challenges and can advocate for the needs of vulnerable populations.”

Bb. Pamaran agrees – to an extent.

“It is very important, it is imperative for church leaders (and) faith-based organizations (FBOs) to deal with Covid-19 in factual, scientific ways,” she said. This is because “the things you say in the pulpit or all of the platforms that are available to you must always be based on scientific, medical evidence. And you have to exhaust all possible efforts to do your research because people tend to believe whoever is speaking behind the pulpit.”

Bb. Pamaran added that “people turn to superstition if scientific answers are not available. So as faith-based leaders, it is our responsibility to fuse rationality and factual scientific inquiry in these desperate (concerns).”

AN EYE-OPENING EXPERIENCE

According to Rev. Alfred Candid M. Jaropillo, Administrative Minister of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP)-Ekklesia in R. Mapa St., Mandurriao, Iloilo City, Covid-19 is an “eye-opener for us that human as we are, we are finite beings, and we don’t have the control of life.”

But Rev. Jaropillo added that this ought to make people see that “people have contributions to the suffering of life, and the suffering of Mother Earth.”

RAINBOW IN FAITH

As FYI: In 2015, the Pew Research Center (PRC) noted that about 5% of the 2014 Religious Landscape Study’s 35,000-plus respondents identified themselves as members of the LGB population. And of that group, a big 59% said they are religiously affiliated. But only 48% of them reported belonging to a Christian faith group, compared with 71% of the general public.

Meaning: Although many members of the LGBTQIA community may feel that most major faiths are unwelcoming to them, a majority of them are still religiously affiliated (though not necessarily as Christian, but also as part of smaller, non-Christian denominations).

Bb. Kakay M. Pamaran, Director for Field Education of the Union Theological Seminary Philippines, said that “people turn to superstition if scientific answers are not available. So as faith-based leaders, it is our responsibility to fuse rationality and factual scientific inquiry in these desperate (concerns).”

Bb. Pamaran noted that LGBTQIA people may not be going to churches because these are unwelcoming, or “they just don’t go to church because they gave up on church altogether. It was difficult for LGBTQIA people to express their faith pre-Covid-19; and now with Covid-19, it would be harder for them, I would imagine.”

Rev. Jaropillo added that it is, therefore, the church’s role to “open its doors… in ministering to people who need God the most: the vulnerable, poor, women, children, the displaced…”

There are, of course, open and affirming (or ONA, the term used by the United Church of Christ/UCC) churches and/or faith-based organizations, or those that affirm the “full inclusion of LGBTQIA and non-binary persons in the church’s life and ministry.”

And they are just as affected by Covid-19.

According to Bishop Regen Luna of the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit Philippines, which is based in the Province of Cavite, the mandate to socially distance meant they had to (temporarily) close, so “Covid-19 had a big impact on us.”

Among others, they had to forego masses, Bible studies, weddings, baptism, et cetera.

Ayaw din namin magkahawahan (We also do not one to infect each other),” he said.

Added Rev. Joseph San Jose, Administrative Pastor of the Open Table Metropolitan Community Church: In the context that we’re a small church, “we don’t have as much of the resources, the facilities that other churches have.”

For instance, the Roman Catholic Church and bigger Protestant churches can broadcast live their masses/worships, “we are unable to do that.”

The composition of the church membership is also proving to be a challenge, geographically speaking. Rev. San Jose, for instance, is in Laguna (approximately 100.3km from Mandaluyong, where the church is located); and members are from the City of Taguig, Quezon City, et cetera. “This is an issue with the Covid-19 lockdowns (that limit mobility of people),” he said.

Bb. Pamaran said that, largely, faith expressions involve corporate worship/gathering in one space. “Without that, faith expressions… significantly change.”

According to Rev. Alfred Candid M. Jaropillo, Administrative Minister of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP)-Ekklesia in R. Mapa St., Mandurriao, Iloilo City, Covid-19 is an “eye-opener for us that human as we are, we are finite beings, and we don’t have the control of life.”

RAINBOW LENS

But Bb. Pamaran wants people to draw something from this experience.

“It is also a good demonstration to non-LGBTQIA persons that this kind of isolation… is the normal for LGBTQIA persons even without Covid-19 as far as going to church is concerned, and in belonging in church communities,” she said.

For Bishop Luna, the pandemic is (similarly) showcasing the resilience of LGBTQIA churches.

Sanay na kami sa hirap (We’re used to hardships),” he said, adding that they now know how to “stretch the budget to sustain a small church.” This is even if their main source of income (i.e. donations, for holding of sacraments like baptism, marriage/weddings, et cetera) is affected by the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Added Rev. Joseph San Jose, Administrative Pastor of the Open Table Metropolitan Community Church: In the context that we’re a small church, “we don’t have as much of the resources, the facilities that other churches have.”

RELATED ISSUES

Covid-19, on its own, isn’t the only problem; just as problematic are its effects on other issues.

In the case of Bishop Luna’s church-goers, for instance, “we have members who are also living with HIV.” Issues re access to life-saving antiretroviral (ARV) medicines have been reported on; particularly affecting those who have no access to treatment hubs/facilities, again because of immobility.

Rev. San Jose admitted that it’s a “personal struggle as a pastor” not being able to help out, particularly at a time when people are asking what churches are doing to help the needy. But “with our situation, it’s almost impossible for us to mobilize in the same way that other churches (have been mobilizing).”

DEALING WITH ‘NEW NORMAL’

Covid-19 introduced a “new normal” even to FBOs – here, largely dictated by going online.

Union Theological Seminary, for one, introduced online courses. Metropolitan Community Church hosts webinars and online conversations. Catholic Diocese of One Spirit Philippines has online services – though, as Bishop Luna said, holding sacraments (e.g. weddings) are still not done this way (thus the rescheduling of pre-booked events to next year). Meanwhile, Open Table Metropolitan Community Church’s Rev. San Jose records sermon/homily for Sunday online “gatherings”; which is also the time when members videoconference to discuss their faith and, yes, Covid-19.

“I think that’s going to be the trend,” said Bb. Pamaran. “This is going to be how we facilitate conversations moving forward.”

Rev. Jaropillo – whose UCCP-Ekklesia also has worship services – said that while churches now also use technology in ministering to people, “we don’t stop there. Aside from virtual worship services, we concretize the love of God through relief operations. We address two things: the liturgical/spiritual ministry through virtual worship services, and the physical need of people. Churches should have a holistic approach (to this).”

“It’s best to respond with creativity,” Bb. Pamaran said.

UNSHAKEN FAITH

At the time of Covid-19, Rev. Jaropillo said that “it’s very natural to doubt and it’s human to question one’s faith: ‘Natutulog ba ang Diyos (Is God asleep)?’ But I believe I don’t need to defend God. God understands the doubts of the people nowadays. So as a church, we need to journey with these people who are in doubt, especially at times of crises like now.”

Bishop Luna agrees.

“Some people ask why God would let something like this happen,” he said, adding that while these questions are unnecessary, that they are asked at all is “natural”/understandable. But he said that times like this offer lessons from God, and people should listen. “We believe in a loving God… We believe that God is teaching us – e.g. how to look after the environment, health, and respect of other creatures. We’ve forgotten these. We also live fast lives; we don’t even think it can end in a blink of an eye.”

For Rev. San Jose, it may be worth echoing what Pope Francis said when asked by a child why there’s human suffering. “Sometimes we just don’t know. It is what it is. There is a mystery of suffering and pain. And it would be very arrogant for us to try to answer very difficult and almost no-answer questions. The progressive faith compels us not to ask where God is, but to ask where we are and what we are doing at this time to be the channel of God’s love, comfort, hope for ourselves and for others.”

According to Bishop Regen Luna of the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit Philippines, which is based in the Province of Cavite, the mandate to socially distance meant they had to (temporarily) close, so “Covid-19 had a big impact on us.”

For Bb. Pamaran: “It’s a common question to ask where God is in all these. But perhaps it’s the best time to ask where humanity is in all these. It is the best time to look into our humanity and our creativity, our innovative imaginations to pull through this.”

LGBTQIA OF FAITH

To LGBTQIA people of faith, Bishop Luna calls for prayers – “unified prayers” – while spending time with loved ones, and looking after oneself (e.g. mental health).

Ibigay natin laat ng ito sa Panginoon (Surrender everything to God),” Bishop Luna said, adding: “We believe that this, too, shall pass.”

LGBTQIA people are resilient, continuing to face hardships in life. “We can survive this, too,” he said, “and pass this with flying colors.”

It is also the resilience of the LGBTQIA people that Rev. Jaropillo wants to highlight. That LGBTQIA people find joy/laugh even in dark times is something that can be shared to cheer up communities. “Continue to shine as a rainbow, to inspire other people.”

Covid-19, said Rev. San Jose, is also a good time for the LGBTQIA people to reflect on social justice. “There is a need for us to be more active in engaging in the issues faced by the country, by our community,” he said. “There is really a great need to organize and mobilize.”

“No sector of people understands isolation more than the LGBTQIA community. We can imagine, we can grasp the loneliness and isolation that Covid-19 brings. And so try to remember how you pulled through all these years, and then try to help others do the same,” said Bb. Pamaran.

In the end, “now more than ever, the world needs color; the world needs our color. So be that… for yourself and for others,” Bb. Pamaran ended.

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Being trans at the time of Covid-19 lockdown

#LGBT Filipinos still face legal impediments re their #SOGIESC, so many of the gov’t responses related to #Covid19 exclude them. For #trans community members, interconnected issues include losing livelihood considering many belong to informal sectors, limited access to hormonal medications that could adversely affect mental/emotional/psychological health, and general forced invisibility that excludes them from gov’t support.

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Main photo by Cecilie Johnsen from Unsplash.com

At the moment, LGBTQIA people are (often) excluded in government assistance related to Covid-19, said Magdalena Robinson, CEO of the Cebu United Rainbow LGBTIQ+ Sector Inc. There are various (and many of them interrelated) reasons why this is so – e.g. because marriage equality is not recognized in the Philippines, many LGBTQIA Filipinos live alone (“For example, they just rent rooms”) or perhaps couples live together yet are just considered as board mates, so they are not considered to belong to “homes”/”households”. “That’s a difficulty (that affects) access to the assistance of the government.”

It is the intersection/inter-connection of issues that – in truth – define the experience of transgender Filipinos in particular as they try to survive the Covid-19 lockdown.

WANTED: ACCESS TO MEDS

To start, there’s the issue with accessing hormonal medications.

As noted by Jhen Latorre of the Pioneer FTM (Pioneer Filipino Trans men Movement), members of the transpinoy/trans men community already noted issues re accessing testosterone (hormonal medications). Not only because the stocks are limited, ordering is challenging, but also “mahirap ang shipping (we also encounter issues with shipping).” This is even more so for those in provinces.

Robinson added that many trans people access hormonal medications from the black market. For example, some local suppliers buy from Thailand. But there are now issues with stocks, affected by the lockdown that limits mobility of goods (from overseas, as well as locally).

Now, this is worth highlighting: According to Kate Montecarlo Cordova, founding chairperson of the Association of Transgender People in the Philippines, “people have a hard time understanding the health impact of hormones to trans people.”

Cordova said that many people now “think that taking hormones is just a luxury; that we just want it, and it’s not even needed.”

She added that often neglected in this line of conversation are the biological/physical, economic/financial, and psychological/emotional impacts of not having these hormonal medications – e.g. there are trans women who work as entertainers, and not having access to the needed meds could affect their physicality, which could affect their means of living.

In the end, “these are all interrelated,” Cordova said. “There are intersectionalities.”

‘FORCED INVISIBILITY’

Obviously this touches on the continuing “forced invisibility” of trans people in the Philippines particularly when talking legally – e.g. the country still doesn’t have gender recognition law, and basically misgenders trans people by legally pigeonholing them according to their assigned sex at birth.

According to Kate Montecarlo Cordova, founding chairperson of the Association of Transgender People in the Philippines, “people have a hard time understanding the health impact of hormones to trans people.”

INFORMAL WORKERS

According to Latorre, at least in his group, most of their members have jobs that: 1. allow them to work at home, and 2. still give them regular salaries even during the Covid-19 lockdown.

But there are also those who are affected by “no work, no pay,” he said. So these people now only rely from the support of family members.”

Shane R. Parreno, chairperson of the Transpinays of Antipolo Organization, said that the percentage of members of the trans community who hold regular jobs remains low.

Local figures continue to be limited on this, but at least in the US, 29% of trans people live in poverty, compared to 14% of the general population; and trans people experience unemployment at three times the rate of the general population, with 30% of trans people reporting being fired, denied a promotion, or experiencing mistreatment in the workplace due to their gender identity in the past 12 months.

For Parreno, may trans Filipinos – and LGBTQIA community members, for that matter – are informal workers, e.g. hairdressers, make-up artists/cosmetologists, and tailors/seamstresses. And with “everybody affected by the lockdown, those working in these fields/areas do not have clients, so they do not earn,” she said.

Robinson stressed the same point: There are trans women who work in the beauty industry, fashion industry, et cetera who do not have income now. “So we hope they will not be left out (in the giving of needed support from the government during the pandemic).”

Latorre – who has two kids, but who also did not qualify in the government’s definition of “household” to be given support – said that even before, LGBTQIA families have always been set aside.

And because “there are trans people who are the breadwinners,” Parreno said, “I hope that their SOGIESC won’t be reason for them not to be included in (government support).”

At the moment, LGBTQIA people are (often) excluded in government assistance related to Covid-19, said Magdalena Robinson, CEO of the Cebu United Rainbow LGBTIQ+ Sector Inc.

ACCESS TO MEDICAL CARE

There’s also the difficulty in getting medical care.

Recognizing that trans people may need to see medical professionals (e.g. when transitioning), Latorre also isn’t aware of clinics that are now open for them to access. This issue is ongoing, however, and is apparent even when there’s no lockdown, since there remain few – if any – trans-specific medical practitioners in the Philippines, perhaps even more particularly in provinces.

Sana di na magtagal ito ng sobra (I hope the lockdown doesn’t last long),” Latorre said, because “alam ko din naman na kailangan pa din to see a doctor lalo na sa too-serious na matters (I recognize that there is still need to see a doctor, particularly for very serious matters).”

As noted by Jhen Latorre of the Pioneer FTM (Pioneer Filipino Trans men Movement), members of the transpinoy/trans men community already noted issues re accessing testosterone (hormonal medications).

HELPING EACH OTHER

For Latorre, “nakakatulong ang organization (trans organizations help).” For instance, members of trans organizations can give tips re transitioning, or – if meds are needed – they can “lend” supplies.

In Cebu in central Philippines, Robinson said that transpinays asked their networks on where to get supplies. And when supplies are really hard to get, “we just advise them on the alternatives – e.g. maybe there are fruits that have high estrogen or anti-androgen properties.”

Some food that are estrogen-rich, and help lower testosterone levels include: soy products like edamame, tofu, soy milk and miso; spearmint and peppermint; licorice root; vegetable oils; flaxseed; and certain types of nuts.

“We give out this information so we have alternatives for them,” said Robinson, adding that those who received the information are “advised to share the same to their contacts.”

For Robinson, “everyone is experiencing difficulties,” she said, so “we have to support each other, fix each other’s crown.”

Latorre also has a practical recommendation: Since trans people are at home during the lockdown, they may want to use this to find time to talk to their families. “Baka ito na ang oras to open up (Maybe this is a good time to open up),” he said.

Cordova said that the lockdown highlights that “it’s about time that we comfort each other. We can’t expect our government, or other people to comfort us.”

Shane R. Parreno, chairperson of the Transpinays of Antipolo Organization, said that the percentage of members of the trans community who hold regular jobs remain low.

Meanwhile, Parreno has practical recommendations.

“Let’s support our government – e.g. when it says for us to stay home, stay home. Talagang malaki ang impact nito (This has a big impact),” she said. “Ipakita natin… na hindi tayo pasaway (Let’s show others we’re not troublesome).”

And in the end, “let’s pray that this will end soon para magkita-kita na tayo ulit, maka-rampa na tayo ulit (so we can see each other again, and wander/jaunt again).”

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Living with HIV at the time of Covid-19 lockdown

To date, there is still no evidence that the risk of infection of #COVID19 is different among persons living with #HIV. But the #lockdown is worsening the situation of many PLHIVs – e.g. in accessing their life-saving medicines, loss of income/livelihood, exclusion in government responses, depression, et cetera.

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Nakakadagdag ng takot (Covid-19 adds to the fear) of persons living with HIV,” said Anthony Louie David, a Filipino living with HIV.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “at present there is no evidence that the risk of infection or complications of COVID-19 is different among PLHIVs who are clinically and immunologically stable on antiretroviral treatment when compared with the general population.” WHO added that “it is unknown if the immunosuppression of HIV will put a person at greater risk for COVID-19.”

However, “until more is known, additional precautions for all people with advanced HIV or poorly controlled HIV, should be employed.” This is because “PLHIVs with advanced disease, those with low CD4 and high viral load and those who are not taking antiretroviral treatment have an increased risk of infections and related complications in general.”

And so for David, because those with weaker immune systems are at higher risk of getting infected with Covid-19, “andoon yung takot (the fear is there).”

Rogeselle Burdeos Monton, also a PLHIV and the research and development officer of the Culture and Arts Managers of the Philippines, said that there’s that “worry within yourself” that because one is immunocompromised, “you might end up being infected with another virus.”

For Moses Ayuha, “PLHIVs should take precautionary measures… particularly if they go out.” Practically, “wear mask,” he said, though more importantly, “better your immune system… and stop panicking.”

ACCESS TO LIFE-SAVING MEDS

The fear – not just the lockdown – has been limiting.

David, for instance, hasn’t been out of his house for weeks now – e.g. other family members have to do the groceries for him.

David is also troubled that his supply of life-saving antiretroviral (ARV) medicines is about to run out. “My treatment hub is in the City of Manila, and I am now in Biñan City, Laguna (approximately 31 kilometers away).”

With being idle affecting mental health, along with the fear of getting Covid-19 and accessing ARVs, “learn how to divert your attention,” Rogeselle Monton said. “Your fears are valid, but focus on your well-being as a PLHIV.”

Living in a different local government unit (LGU) is also an issue because people from outside Metro Manila (where his treatment hub is) are barred from entering Metro Manila.

At least for Moses Myro Ayuha, another person living with HIV, “luckily, I have supplies until May.” But Ayuha said that there are “blood brothers” who are really having difficulty in accessing their ARVs.

The Department of Health (DOH) tried to remedy this issue.

In March, DOH released an advisory that recognizes that “this current situation poses challenges in accessing life-saving medications… which may result in treatment interruption”, so it is mandating treatment facilities to “exhaust all possible methods to ensure reliable access to PLHIVs to treatment without having to risk increased exposure to Covid-19 when accessing their medicines.”

Meaning: PLHIVs can get their supplies (while the lockdown is ongoing) in other hubs that are nearest to them; or have their ARVs delivered to them, among others.

Monton’s hub delivered his ARVs for him… but he had to pay for the courier/shipping fee on his own, which may be an issue for those who do not have money to do so.

Monton also noted that there are also confusions – e.g. the process of accessing ARVs in hubs not yours, with policies supposedly announced by the DOH causing confusion instead of clarity.

And so Monton said that some end up “borrowing meds.”

David noted how non-government organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) are stepping up. For instance, there are those that deliver the ARVs to those who can’t leave their houses – e.g. #AwraSafely has some guide for PLHIVs during the time of Covid-19.

Bagot na ba beshie? O heto, basahin ang mga dapat nating malaman tungkol sa HIV at COVID-19.Tandaan: sa panahon ng #COVID19, ang pag-postpone ng awra ay pag-#AwraSafely!

Posted by AwraSafely on Sunday, March 22, 2020

Helping is also done to those who have lost their means of living – e.g. the AIDS Society of the Philippines (ASP) gives out some amount to HIV-positive mothers and/or their kids, as well as healthcare providers who are rendering HIV-related services during the Covid-19 lockdown period.

This is particularly helpful to those “na walang kakayanang bumili ng pagkain nila ngayong may lockdown dahil wala ring trabaho ngayon,” David said.

Sadly – and this is worth highlighting – many of the existing solutions are available for PLHIVs in metropolitan areas, such as Metro Manila, where many NGOs and CBOs operate. Outside of Metro Manila, in the provinces, already problematic access to ARVs are worsened by the Covid-19 lockdown. Monton knows of a PLHIV in Laguna, for instance, who had to spend an entire day just to get through a series of checkpoints to access the nearest treatment hub to him; and then when he got there, “siguro nagmakaawa (maybe he begged) just to be given ARVs.”

WORK WOES

Like the rest of the population, the livelihood of PLHIVs are just-as-affected by the Covid-19 lockdown.

Ayuha, for one, said that – at least where he’s staying, a halfway house for PLHIVs – they now rely on donations of food packs. “Nakakaraos din (We get by somehow),” he said.

But Ayuha said that “I am unable to do (what I usually do daily),” including giving HIV-related lectures (while working for non-government organizations). “Nabago talaga dahil di ka nga makalabas (This really changed because you can’t go out).”

David is the same; with his income usually sourced from giving HIV-related talks. And with gatherings cancelled because of the lockdown, “walang maasahan kundi pamilya ko lang (I only rely on my family).”

Monton, meanwhile, is a freelance worker, so his earnings are also affected. He may be luckier than most because he has savings; but he knows of other PLHIVs who – even now – are already worrying where to source the money for the incoming months’ bills (e.g. rent, utilities, et cetera).

Monton actually hopes that that the government’s financial support be made more inclusive. “When it comes to evaluating people who are currently financially challenged.” At the end of the day, he added, even PLHIVs are “also tax-payers.”

For Louie David, because those with weaker immune systems are at higher risk of getting infected with Covid-19, “andoon yung takot (the fear is there).”

FOCUS ON SELF-CARE

David said that there are other issues affecting PLHIVs now highlighted by Covid-19 – e.g. depression. To deal with this, he recommends “keeping yourself busy.”

So David said: “Better your immune system because Covid-19 isn’t just going to be here now. Even without the lockdown, Covid-19 will still be there. So gain strength so that when the lockdown is lifted and we’re finally allowed to go out, we know we’d still be safe because we’ve properly prepared.”

Monton gives three practical tips.

First, with being idle affecting mental health, along with the fear of getting Covid-19 and accessing ARVs, “learn how to divert your attention,” he said. “Your fears are valid, but focus on your well-being as a PLHIV.”

Second, take precautions – e.g. wear face mask when going out, disinfect particularly before touching the face, et cetera.

And third, “magdasal (pray),” he said. Maybe not even because one is religious, but for “peace of mind… somehow it helps.”

For Ayuha, “PLHIVs should take precautionary measures… particularly if they go out.” Practically, “wear mask,” he said, though more importantly, “better your immune system… and huwag praning (stop panicking).”

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