By Isabel Rodrigo

COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency nationally and internationally, but have we learned our lessons from this catastrophe? It goes without saying that we must learn our lessons, for the world will inevitably face another pandemic — it is just a matter of when.

One particular concern is learning local lessons. We have heard many stories on the ground, and it is important to document these stories and distill the lessons, which can also apply to other emergencies or catastrophes.

And here Batanes is a good case study: a remote island which is no stranger to calamities and whose people are known for resilience, self-reliance, and cooperation.

The province of Batanes is the northernmost point of the Philippines. The unique setting of Batanes, the smallest province with the smallest population in the Philippines, makes it prone to a variety of challenges, from unstable electricity and cell signal to insufficient water supply. Batanes’ isolation from the rest of the country has often posed problems for its locals.

It has been more than four years since the first case of COVID arrived in the Philippines. Batanes, however, didn’t record a single case until the end of September 2020. In May 2021, after counting 10 cases, the province was declared COVID-free. In the time of COVID, Batanes’ isolation (as well as the provincial government’s stringent quarantine measures) provided an advantage against the crisis that brought the rest of the country to a standstill.

While Ivatans obediently followed the safety measures, some farmers in Barangay Chanarian poked fun at mobility restrictions, such as the “no angkas” policy that prohibited even married couples who lived in the same home from riding the same motorcycle. Others complained that although they weren’t prevented from visiting their farms, they couldn’t leave their homes: they had to stay home to teach their children, sometimes doing their schoolwork for them.

During this time, parents, some of whom had never gone beyond high school, struggled to teach their children, a burden imposed upon them by the “modular” method of distance learning adopted by most public schools. While some argue that “modular learning,” where students are given worksheets to answer in place of in-person instruction, is more equitable than online classes since many public school students lack devices that connect to the internet, the lack of instruction prompted students to search online for answers anyway, causing those in remote and rural areas to struggle more than their urban counterparts. The return of face-to-face classes was met with relief by Ivatan parents, who said they could finally work on their farms and attend association meetings as they needed. The long-term effect of modular learning has yet to be measured, but one farmer says his children, like many others, will graduate grade six “na walang kaalam-alam” (knowing nothing).”

According to an association of mataw fishers, those who engage in traditional means of catching dorado and flying fish during the summer, mobility restrictions did not prevent them from going out to sea. They were, however, prohibited from selling the fish in the town proper, causing a steep drop in income. Until June 2021, when restrictions were loosened, their catch was limited to family consumption. Those who caught more fish than they could store in their freezers gave them away for free. Despite a successful fishing season, they had no income to buy essential goods, such as medicine and household supplies.

While restrictions eased up in mid-2021, the road to recovery was thwarted when, in September 2021, Typhoon Kiko hit Batanes, causing P358-million worth of damage to an already devastated economy. After the typhoon, people ventured out of their homes to look for food, causing a spike in COVID cases and the return of mobility restrictions. Crop production plummeted and many Ivatans suffered, especially families who depended on farming as a subsistence activity. In response to the devastation, locals invoked yaru, the Ivatan word for bayanihan (communal cooperation), when better-off members of the community butchered their own livestock to give away to more vulnerable individuals.

These coinciding disasters proved that provinces like Batanes have a more fraught pathway to recovery than other areas in the Philippines; while the entire country was set back by the pandemic, the devastation was not equal. The natural hazards that are endemic to Batanes compounded the effects of a nationwide health crisis.

Despite its vulnerability, the province struggles to attract funding from the national government: politicians at the national level see little incentive to assist a province with less than 10,000 voters. If this justification of institutional neglect prevails, Ivatans will be left to fend for themselves, with no one to depend on but each other. As the Philippines faces an accelerating climate crisis that is predicted to bring more diseases and typhoons, it is crucial to remember the Ivatans, as there will be a need to redistribute resources from those that have enough to those that have less.

Isabel Rodrigo conducted a study for the Samdhana Institute and Action for Economic Reforms on the pandemic’s impact on marginalized communities.