By Sara Gomez Armas
Manila, June 3 (efe-epa).- The COVID-19 epidemic in the Philippines has served as impetus for the Rodrigo Duterte government to launch a plan to return thousands to their provinces of origin in an attempt to decongest Manila, home to 13 million and one of the most densely populated capitals in the world.
The government is offering cash incentives and employment opportunities to encourage the return of Filipinos to secondary cities under the program, Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pagasa (Return to the Province, New Hope) one of the most aggressive plans in decades to repopulate its provinces.
In a press conference on Wednesday, National Housing Authority General Manager Marcelino Escalada said that Manila had reached its maximum capacity and sustained migration to the capital was not helping the coronavirus epidemic.
Since the launch of the program in mid-May, 79,746 people have joined – 43,750 individually and 35,996 who wish to travel with their families – but the government wants 1 million Filipinos to register.
The unemployed, the homeless – the number of which has visibly increased during the lockdown period – and families living in areas at risk of natural disasters will be given priority as beneficiaries and will receive up to 110,000 pesos ($3,000) in cash or goods, according to Escalada.
The island provinces in the center of the country are the favorites among those who have joined the plan and the first group of 200 Filipinos returned last week to Leyte island, the majority of whom were migrants that fled in 2013 from the destruction caused by super typhoon Haiyan.
Decongesting Manila has been one of the eternal pending projects of successive Filipino governments, but the crisis brought to the fore due to the pandemic has forced acceleration of these plans.
With 13.7 million habitants – more than a third living in overcrowded slums or on the streets – Manila has experienced exponential growth in the last three decades, largely to the rural exodus to the capital in search of employment.
As a result, basic services in the city, such as public transport, education and health are overwhelmed and the new normal that will prevail after the pandemic, with the requisites of social distancing and public health, is unfeasible under these conditions.
Although the rate of poverty has decreased significantly across the country in a whole – it reached 30 percent in the beginning of the century – some 16.6 percent of Filipinos still live below the poverty line in a country of 108 million habitants.
According to the country’s Department of Labor and Employment, 2.6 million people have been left without work in the Philippines during the COVID-19 lockdown, with a third of it in the capital. It is estimated that the unemployment figures might reach 10 million, while the economy enters into recession for the first time since 1998.
The challenge of “Balik Probinsya” is to offer stable employment in the provinces, at the risk of being only a temporary solution until the economy recovers, as the bulk of activity is concentrated in Manila, which makes up 36 percent of the GDP.
The massive migration to Manila began in the 1970s when dictator Ferdinand Marcos undertook an infrastructure building program that required labor in the capital, which at that time had a population of some 4 million.
Duterte seeks to use “Build, Build, Build,” his infrastructure modernization plan, as a focal point to draw workers back to the provinces since a large part of the projects are located outside the capital. EFE-EPA