Spotting Silver: A Peek into Nanay Lolita’s COVID-19 Reality

by Leigh Fuentes, CARE Philippines

Amidst a crowd of people, mostly women in their thirties and forties, *Nanay Lolita stood out with silver hair despite a slightly slumped posture. Regardless of the great number of multipurpose cash assistance (MPCA) receivers, there were only two of us staff members assigned to this money transfer facility. We were awkwardly and barely perched behind a crooked table on the sidewalk of a narrow road where motorcycles and jeepneys flowed nonstop. My partner for this station caught my attention as I finished handing out our pamphlets on gender-based violence in the time of COVID-19. He had told me that it might be a good idea to have a chat with Nanay Lolita to provide the rest of our team with better insight and for me to better understand the current situation of many women in the Philippines.

Nanay Lolita was sitting beside our little table, our pamphlet and her MPCA claim form in one hand, and a big blue plastic bag in the other that had, at the time, unknown items inside that rattled whenever she would shift her position. She sported a worn-out yellow shirt, a piece of promotional material usually given out for free to promote a candidate during election season. My implementation partner gave her a spare surgical mask; she was walking outdoors without one.

Kumusta po kayo, Nanay?” [How are you?] I asked her. “Ito ho, mabuti naman,” [Doing okay.] she replied with a slight shrug of her shoulders.   She told me that she likes to spend her days walking and that she used to walk far greater distances when she was a little younger. “Hindi ko na rin gaano nagagawa dahil bumibigay na rin ang katawan ko,” [I don’t really get to do this as much anymore because my body has started to give out,] she says. Nanay Lolita walking thinks it helps keep her legs and muscles functioning well. She does not only use walking to exercise and think but to also collect scrap and recyclable plastic littered on the streets or in sourced trash cans. I look down at the plastic bag in her hand and suddenly make out the shapes of two or three plastic drink bottles. She has been scavenging through garbage for around two years now, and at the age of 72, this means that she has been out and about 20 years beyond the declared senior citizen age in the Philippines. Residing in a country having the longest recorded lockdowns in the world, Nanay Lolita recounted how this affected her simple routine. She was forbidden from going outdoors during the lockdowns and partners from the local government even shared how the authorities deployed to assure quarantine and lockdown measures were being followed came to be familiar with Nanay Lolita’s face due to her persistence to go outdoors.

Pakiramdam ko malulumpo ako kapag hindi ako nakaklakad tapos hindi pa ako nakapangangalakal.” [I feel like my legs would atrophy if I just stop walking and that means I would also no longer be able to scavenge for scrap plastic to sell for money]. The plastic materials she would have been able to collect would be up for selling to junk shops and other places of the like for a minimal amount of cash. “Kahit papaano, may kaunting nakukuha,” says Nanay Lolita. When the need would arise, she would beg for change from passers-by, public transportation drivers, and commuters. She shared with smiling eyes how sometimes people would randomly hand her a small amount of money and she would automatically think that they were paying her to do a small favor for them or that it was just for her to hand to someone else. When she would clarify, “akala ko may pinapakisuyo kasi minsan ganun, pero pang merienda ko daw.” On the flipside, her eyes changed and seemed sullen and hurt when she also recounted how there were also times when people would look her head to toe and say negative or hurtful things toward her.

Nanay Lolita is only one of thousands upon thousands of women who are experiencing the impact of the pandemic at a greater and more difficult to address degree. The United Nations has stated that the era of the Coronavirus has become a “defining moment for an inclusive and targeted response” for the sector of the community that is among the most physically and economically vulnerable population –  the elderly. During a time when intense pressure and instability are placed on the average individual and even more so on frontliners, society is now put on the spot to address deep-set inequalities in terms of access to social services like health care, as well as the presence of age discrimination and the lack of community participation in planning and decision-making.

Moreover and on a global scale, the COVID-19 pandemic has punctuated the degree to which societies rely on women while simultaneously bringing to light the inequalities sewn into our daily routines, touching on health and other social services, the economy, independence, or involvement in decision-making. According to UN Women, violence against women has intensified since the pandemic with exacerbating factors such as security, health, and financial worries, cramped living  conditions, isolation with abusers, movement restrictions, and deserted public spaces.

Referring to UN Women data from April 2020, a number of countries have recorded a surge of 25 percent in domestic violence reports and emergency calls since social distancing measures were implemented. Women and girls are hit harder by economic shocks. Generally earning less, women are able to save less despite comprising a majority of single-parent households. The pandemic has significantly increased the unpaid care and domestic work of women at home, thus disabling them from taking on or balancing paid work. According to a report from the International Labour Force in Geneva (2018), although not all informal workers are poor, there is definitely a positive relationship between informal employment and poverty; 91% of women in South Asia are informally employed (compared to 87% observed in men across the region).

Nanay Lolita may have come alone for a minimum amount of assistance on the day we were in Barangay Tangos South, Navotas City, but many women across the globe may not even have had this opportunity. CARE, together with its local partners in the Philippines, does not only plan to sustain its humanitarian operations in times of crises, but also to continue to work toward promoting lasting change and innovative solutions in order to support the strengthening of essential service delivery, community resilience, and empowering the most vulnerable, particularly women and girls.


*Nanay is a Filipino term that directly translates to mother.