Pandemic pantry panic
Many have pointed out that we have ancient yet living traditions of mutual aid. To these ingrained instincts have been joined the scope and reach technology provides, for finding like-minded people to engage in problem-solving. When typhoon “Ondoy” struck, community kitchens and ad hoc logistics to man them and fund them were established, an increasingly honed response that lasted until the present pandemic era; the authorities used health and safety as an excuse to clamp down and forbid community kitchens in 2020. The same can be said for other efforts to address misery and hunger due to the pandemic. When supply chains collapsed, and tons of vegetables started rotting, consumers linked up with farmers, cutting out the centuries-old curse of middlemen and extorting officials and police, to get produce into urban hands from rural producers, despite instances of official hostility and interference. Indeed, then as now, public-spirited responses sprouted in the first place, because of official shortcomings.
Do you remember the Duterte Kitchens that sprang up virtually from the start of the present dispensation and which could be seen as late as the midterms? But they are gone. Do you remember the mobile kitchen of the armed forces, capable of feeding thousands in one visit? At least that is still operational, but a drop in the bucket of need when government itself had to extend its Holy Week pandemic shutdown assistance to May 15, because so many had yet to receive it. Do you remember the authorities shipping in vegetables, finally, but how many such efforts fizzled out? And yet official hostility combined with pro forma praise has been the official response to the public-spirited response of community pantries.
The hostility is premised on the idea that if so-called red-tagging fails, then you can kill community pantries with red tape. The universal — Thais and Americans alike know it well — slogan of the community pantry, “give according to your ability, take according to your need,” was too Marxist (because a more-accurate suspicion of anarchism is beyond our authorities) for comfort. Cops started sniffing around, demanding numbers and filled out forms; and for every Undersecretary Malaya saying no permit is required, there’s a (more powerful) Undersecretary Diño insisting permits are absolutely required — only to feebly backtrack by saying at least coordination with barangays should be done. Some mayors, like Rex Gatchalian and Joy Belmonte, nipped an unwinnable public opinion disaster in the bud by categorically stating they supported any and all community pantries; but the damage has been done — to the authorities.
The Secretary of the Interior even says pantries are OK if without political color, when it isn’t his business to impose that criteria.
You know an idea’s time has come when it can be approached and supported from different, even incompatible, points of view; conservative and liberal Catholics or Christians of every stripe, liberal democrats or national democrats, all can and have embraced the community pantry idea as it addresses two compulsions in our society: To get food on the part of the hungry and to provide food on the part of those who have something to spare. Now the Catholic Church is institutionally embracing the community pantry scheme, presenting the police with a tougher nut to crack.
I myself would only add the observation that part of the timeliness of this solution which has been embraced the world over in these pandemic times (most noticeably, in our part of the world, in Thailand, and also in the United States) is that its small scale perfectly suits the other sad reality that we are going on two years in which those who have extra have been giving what they have; for too many, this means they have less to give, now, while government — and the entire political class itself — is hoarding its resources with a mind to surviving the coming election. Community pantries are a dignified way not only to obtain assistance but to give it, non-judgmental on both the giving and accepting sides, and particularly meaningful, I think, at this time because for so many who have less to give, the giving still continues. But we should realize this is a sign that many are now giving to the point where it hurts, precisely because they see so many hurting now, more than ever.