By Tracy Cabrera
JEEPNEY driver Mang Cario has been forced off the road by the coronavirus lockdowns and he now plies the streets of Caloocan City on foot begging for money to feed his hungry family.
The 53-year-old has not picked up a passenger since March when public transport was halted and people ordered to stay home as President Rodrigo Duterte’s government tried to slow down the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak.
Jeepneys—first made from leftover US jeeps after the Second World War and known colloquially as Hari ng Kalsada or King of the Road—is recognized as a national symbol, and until now serves as the backbone of the country’s transport system, providing rides for millions of Filipinos for as little as nine pesos (US$0.18). Way back in the 1950s, passenger fare was only 10 centavos.
But drivers like Mang Cario, and millions of others across the archipelago, are out of work after the months-long of restrictions that has crippled the economy, plunging it into deep recession.
With no income and debts piling up, some of the country’s jeepney drivers have started living in their jeepneys with his wife, two of his children and a fellow tsuper after they were evicted from their apartment because they could no longer pay the rent.
Instead of sitting behind the wheel, drivers like Mang Cario spent many days begging for alms just to get by.
Other drivers carry plastic containers and cardboard signs around their necks to catch the attention and sympathy of passing motorists.
“Walang-wala na kaming makain,” Mang Cario enthused as he sat inside his jeepney, parked in a street and crammed with cooking pots, clothes and other humble possessions.
A sign asking for help from passers-by sits on top of the vehicle, which his empathetic boss has loaned him.
Flattened cardboard boxes cover the side windows and rear entrance to give the family some privacy—and a feeling of protection from the Covis-19 virus they fear is lurking outside.
As the number of confirmed infections in the Philippines surges past 160,000 mark—the highest in Southeast Asia—and Manila endures more lockdowns, Mang Cario has no idea when he will be allowed to drive again.
He occasionally picks up odd jobs selling scrap metal, painting or welding. But it is not enough to feed his family.
“Madalas minsan lang kami kung kumain sa isang araw,” he says.
So dire is their predicament the couple sent their seven-month-old baby to live with relatives outside Manila to ease pressure on themselves and ensure the child gets enough food.
Standing on the side of a busy road in sweltering heat with other drivers asking for money, Mang Cario claims the desire to eat overrides his fear of the virus or speeding cars.
“Minsan muntikan na akong masagasaan pero wala kaming magawa. Kumakalam na ang aming sikmura kaya kailangan naming magpalimos,” he described his situation, his voice cracking as he fought back tears.
Drivers have received little money from government and a food handouts from the occasional good Samaritan. But this does not make up for their lost income.
In June, six jeepney drivers were arrested by police for allegedly violating a ban on mass gatherings and rules on social distancing after they protested over the loss of their livelihoods. They were later released on bail.
Even when the initial lockdown restrictions in Manila were eased in June only a fraction of the city’s roughly 60,000 jeepneys were allowed to operate under strict rules.
Drivers had to make their vehicles virus-safe by installing plastic seat dividers and reducing capacity to comply with social-distancing regulations.
Those used to pocketing as much as 1,500 pesos a day had to settle for much smaller takings.
Then a new lockdown imposed nearly two weeks ago in Manila and four surrounding provinces—home to a quarter of the country’s more than 100 million population—forced those lucky few off the road.
Some are worried they may never drive again as the government phases out smoke-belching jeepneys that are 15 years or older.
The program to modernize the vehicles was due to finish this year. The government has not announced if the deadline will be extended.
Mang Cario, who has been a driver for 36 years, said his operator had already sold a jeepney due to the phasing-out program and the lockdowns.
With his livelihood at risk, he is losing hope.
“We might just beg for alms for the rest of our lives,” he expressed his final fear.