Things got a little tense outside Pedro P. Cruz Elementary School in Mandaluyong. Close to the live airing of President Duterte’s final State of the Nation Address, people were still in line to see if they could still get vaccinated. All those with appointments for the day were inoculated such that the security and volunteers allowed walk-ins to get the shot. But it was close to cut-off time and people wanted their turn. “Nauna ako sa kanya! Ano to, palakasan?” (I was first. Are there favorites here?) someone yelled near the front of the queue. Volunteer guards at the gate calmed her down. Everyone would get their turn. It’s not a long line anyway.
A few minutes later, the sound of the national anthem was heard from TV speakers. To some, it’s business as usual. But for others, their attention was held by the president for the next two hours and 45 minutes, delivering his final speech to the nation about his government’s achievements for the people. These included the war on drugs, infrastructure and efforts to fight insurgency.
Just across the school gate, Bernard, a barber, attended to his customers while the president drones on a TV at the back of his shop. Business hasn’t been the same since the pandemic hit but he said he is surviving. “Kinakaya (I’m coping),” he said. “Hindi [na] gaya [ng] dati yung customers. May mga nawalan ng trabaho, mga estudyante nasa bahay lang. Pero kaya pa naman. Nagsu-survive kahit papaano (Customers were unlike before. Some lost jobs, students were just at home. I can handle it. Am still surviving somehow).”
A few houses away at the corner street lives Elizabeth and her family. She and her husband are unemployed. They’re watching a movie on their TV. I asked her why she wasn’t watching the SONA. “Nakalimutan ko (I forgot).” She said she anticipated it and even talked about it with her family the night before. They wanted to watch it but her mind has been preoccupied, worried and trying to make ends meet. “Madaming problema, madaming iniisip (Many problems. A lot on my mind).” She hoped that someone would give her or her husband a job soon. “Kahit anong trabaho basta makatulong sa pamilya (Any job will do as long as it will help the family),” she said.
Both Elizabeth and Bernard hit on the problem of unemployment as the president listed more of his administration’s achievements. The president talked about many accomplishments, but people like Elizabeth or Bernard’s customers still suffer from the health crisis and wonder when their burdens would end.
Just a few blocks from Bernard was Jaime, another barber. He prepared coffee and bread and sat on a red block that looked like a booster seat for kids while getting their haircut. He settled down to watch President Duterte, whom he voted for in 2016. He said he watched the SONA every year. “Marami naman siyang magandang nagawa (He did a lot of good things),” he said, referring to Duterte’s five years in office.
He added, “Mga tao naman hindi perpekto, may mga pagkukulang (People are not perfect, there are shortcomings).” Like everyone else, his business has been struggling since the pandemic. “Diskarte (Resourcefulness),” he said, is how he is getting by. His customers are mostly kids (hence the booster seat) so they’re hard to come by these days with the quarantine prohibiting them to go outside. I asked him if he tried home servicing. “Oo. Pero napagod ako! Dito na lang. Hintay na lang [ulit] kung kailan pwede. Pinag-PPE nila kami dati pero mainit (Yes, but I got tired. I’d rather wait for the customers. We are required to wear PPE but it’s hot).”
He turned his attention back to the TV and ate his bread. A number of people stood outside his open air shop and joined him to watch the SONA.
Yhobe, who runs his sister’s eatery a street away from Jaime’s barber shop, also enthusiastically watched the SONA. Passing by their eatery, it sounded like they’re just listening to the SONA through the radio. But he later went into the dining area from the kitchen and placed his phone on a ledge attached to the counter, just below the large speakers with multi-colored lights. He took out a notebook, jotted things down while listening to the speech and took orders in between. He applauded when the president talked about the COVID-19 response. He laughed when the president cracked a joke.
Right next door is the vape shop of husband and wife Patrick and Lay. “Inaabangan ko ‘to kasi last na (I was waiting for this because it is the last),” said Patrick, “Ineexpect ko na iyayabang niya yung mga ginawa niya (I expected he would banner his achievements).” Patrick said he was satisfied with the government’s flagship programs, such as the war on drugs (“Kahit papaano mukhang na-lessen naman ang krimen”) (Criminality has somehow lessened) and the Build Build Build (“Maganda ‘yan!”) (That’s good). He said he also liked how this administration tried to tackle the issue of vaping, which has become controversial. “‘Unti-unti nang papunta na mali-legalize (It will eventually be legalized) and we are happy about it.”
Meanwhile, Lay, who works for the Department of Education, happily reported that the president has been supporting their programs. “Sinusuportahan naman niya ‘yung desisyon ni [Sec. Leonor Briones] at kinokontra kapag ayaw, katulad nung face to face classes ngayon, ayaw namin ‘yun (He is supporting the decision of Secretary Leonor Briones, and is against if he doesn’t like, such as the face-to-face classes, which we oppose).”
As for the administration’s handling of the pandemic, Patrick said, “Kahit sino naman mabibigla. Lahat magkakaproblema [sa pagtugon diyan] (Everyone was caught by surprise. Everyone will have a problem when it comes to the response).”
“Sa [mga ginawa nya sa] pandemic, wala akong mai-co-comment (I have no comment on what he did in the pandemic),” said Bernard when asked about the same issue. “Sa Build Build Build, tama lang. Sa droga fail siya, kasi hanggang ngayon nagaabang pa din ng droga (In the Build Build Build, just right. On illegal drugs, he failed because drugs continue to proliferate).” Later on, he gave the president a “fail” mark on Health Secretary Duque’s crisis response.
“Akala ko ayaw niya sa corruption. Sabi niya sisibakin niya agad [ang mga corrupt]. Mga congressman, mga senator [ayaw na kay Sec. Francisco T. Duque] pero hindi [niya] masibak (I thought he didn’t like corruption. He said he will fire the corrupt. Congressmen and senators didn’t like Duque but the president could not fire him).” It looked like Bernard was done for the day so he let the President’s speech drone in the background as he sat on a wooden bench outside his shop.
Across Bernard’s shop, LGU workers and volunteers just wrapped up their day too. Within a radius of shops, small businesses, and institutions, the impact of labor holding up our country was undeniable, even when it stepped onto a precarious ledge because of the health crisis. I chatted with the vaccination center’s coordinator a bit before she went home, and told me that many of the people helping out are volunteers. I asked her if she’ll also watch the SONA when she gets home. “Probably, just to catch up.” I realized I forgot to ask her if the volunteers at the vaccination center were paid so I asked someone at a nearby table, who stretched her back, probably sore from working all day. She paused and gave me a puzzled look. “Hindi po namin alam kung bayad kami (We do not know if we’d get paid).” And then she laughed. She gathered her things and headed out to the gates. She and her colleagues would be back tomorrow at 9 a.m., braving crowds and the threat of a possible infection, and helping build the defense against COVID-19.