Helping jeepney drivers plying UP navigate the COVID-19 pandemic

Aneth Ng-Lim

Posted at Jul 27 2020 09:03 AM

MANILA -- Pickpockets are everywhere, and it’s my tough luck that they always seem to find me. While lining up for a fast food meal, or when browsing books to add to my personal library, I have often wondered if there was a flashing sign on the top of my head that says ‘Easy Pickings Here’.

The first time I lost my wallet to one, I was a sophomore at UP. I was about to pay for my Ikot jeepney fare when I discovered my wallet missing. My allowance was so small at that time that I had no other cash stash. All of my money was in my wallet which meant I could not pay my Ikot jeepney fare and would also have no way to make it home.

I was seated upfront with the driver and I just started crying. To my surprise, the driver comforted me and told me not to worry about paying him. And then he handed me P10 and said I use it to find my friends or to get home. I was sobbing my eyes out so I did not even think of asking for his name but that was my first experience of kindness from a stranger. That jeepney driver made me realize that help can be found in unexpected places from unexpected people and poverty is not even an excuse – all we need is to be ready to give it when we can.

Waking up to a jeepney ban

When the lockdown was put in effect on March 16, at least 333 drivers who were plying the six routes (Ikot, Katipunan, Pantranco, Philcoa, SM North, and Toki) serving the UP community lost their livelihood overnight. Nolan Grulla recalled that the Sunday before the quarantine was enforced, he woke up early as usual and started driving when he was flagged inside UP and advised to follow the maximum 8 passenger rule, or half his jeepney’s capacity. He was flagged again when he made the stop at SM North EDSA and given the same reminder. The next day, he and all the drivers were told to stop operating altogether.

Over the five months, Mang Nolan and all the drivers have tirelessly explored options to be able to get back on the road and recover their livelihood. But with UP embracing remote learning for school year 2020-2021, even if restrictions would be lifted on mass transportation, it appears they have also lost their passengers and with that the demand for their services.

Day of solidarity gives way to hope

UP alumna Chloe Garcera-Ben joined the Day of Solidarity with the jeepney drivers in front of Vinzon’s Hall in UP Diliman back in June 27 and learned the sad state of the drivers first hand. Many are heads of their families and relied heavily on jeepney operations for income. 

“Most of the drivers have gone hungry, depending on relief goods provided by UP student organizations. While they are hopeful that they could go back to driving their jeepneys soon, their future is uncertain. Before the lockdown, the government was pushing for the Jeepney Modernization Program which phases out the traditional jeepneys for Euro-4 compliant public transportation which the drivers can ill-afford,” related Ben. 

Moved by the conditions of the jeepney drivers and their families, Ben held exploratory discussions with different sets of friends on how the drivers could be assisted. Five responded positively and a core group was formed to catalyze the initiative. They held a meeting with the leaders of the jeepney drivers a week after to determine their needs. From that initial meeting, the idea of providing not just relief but supporting the UP jeepney drivers in their recovery was hatched. Each has since recruited more UP alumni and friends to pledge their support.

Pantawid Para sa Mga Naghahatid 

Ben plus batchmates Maria Lisa Alano and Armen Ria Toquero, (BS Community Development, 1994) together with Charrie Calalang (BA Philosophy, 1993), Christine May Derafera (BS Geography, 2009), and Jayson Bernard Bautista Santos (BA Journalism, 2005) launched “Pantawid Para sa Mga Naghahatid” to mobilize UP alumni and friends to provide relief funds for affected UP drivers. Their initial and urgent goal is to raise enough to be able to give P2,000/month for one quarter.

Iskos and Iskas, the affectionate terms for UP students or Iskolar ng Bayan, were quick to come to the aid of the drivers. Thanks in large part to a video featuring calls for help from UP alumni that went viral, more than P900,000 in cash aid has been collected, allowing Ben and the other organizers to begin distributing financial aid. 

Strictly observing physical distancing, 167 drivers each received P2,000 just this weekend. The others who were forced out of Metro Manila in their search for jobs during lockdown will receive their aid through money transfer.

Beyond cash aid, the initiative also plans to support the jeepney drivers with sustainable livelihood. The group has already written to two resources institutions to explore capacity building and employment alternatives, and they are planning a skills inventory on the next meeting with drivers to determine the skills not just of the drivers but family members as well.

UP Community heals as one

Pantawid Para sa Mga Naghahatid is only one of many efforts of various groups of students, alumni, and other sectors that are supporting the UP drivers. Mang Nolan is deeply grateful for each one of them.

When he received his P2,000 last Saturday, Mang Nolan used most of it to buy maintenance medication for his wife, afflicted with Type 2 diabetes and also managing high cholesterol. What’s heartbreaking is that Mang Nolan himself needs medicine for his own high cholesterol, but the money will not stretch to cover both their medical needs.

Now 55 years old, he faces an uncertain future with limited skills and many fears. Mang Nolan pleads: “Gusto ko talaga makabalik sa pagbiyahe. Ang tatay ko kasi matapos mag-retiro sa UP Press, nag jeepney driver din siya. Itong jeepney ko, nakuha ko sa kapatid kong tumulong sa amin at namatay na sa cancer. Ito ang bumuhay sa amin mula 1986. Sana makapagdrive ulit ako para sa UP. (I really want to go back to driving. After my father retired from the UP Press, he became a jeepney driver. The jeepney I use came from my sister who passed away from cancer. My driving has been providing for my family since 1986 so I look forward to being able to go back to it.)”

Talking to him, I did wonder if he was the same driver who gave me P10 while I was crying my eyes out over a lost wallet. The years overlap but the route is different so I hesitated to ask. But I do not need to confirm his identity to find a reason to help. Mang Nolan and many others who lost their jobs, are starving daily, with no means to provide for basic necessities, need your handout and a hand up. If you can pay it forward, now is the time to find Mang Nolans in your community.

For more information and to know how you can help, visit @pantawidjeep on Facebook.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.