Thinkwell Lena Alvior

Reflecting on Life in the Philippines During the Pandemic

18 March 2021

A year after the Covid-19 crisis really took hold in the Philippines, we sat down with Technical Advisor Helena Alvior, who supports ThinkWell’s Strategic Purchasing for Primary Health Care project, to chat about what life has been like for her and other Filipinos over the past 12 months.

How has life changed over the past year for you and for most Filipinos?

I wouldn’t compare my experience to the experience of most Filipinos. The pandemic has been much harder for less fortunate people. When the lockdown first happened, malls were closed so people who had entrepreneurial micro-businesses were very affected. Another challenge for people who still had to commute for work was that since public transportation ridership decreased, the fares were increased.

I have three boys, ages seven, five, and one. When school was canceled, they had to stay home. So that was hard because I was working virtually and trying to keep them quiet and look out for them. It was a big help to have husband and family here, but still it was difficult to not have a boundary between work hours and family hours. But for most Filipinos it’s been more difficult than it’s been for me.

What has been the greatest health systems challenge that the Philippines has faced in the past year while fighting Covid?

Before Covid, our health system was fragmented because of devolution. The health system issues have become even more glaring during Covid. Before the pandemic started, the Universal Health Care (UHC) law was passed so there was health system support buy-in from stakeholders, health leaders, and government. Because of that, officials were better prepared to implement Covid response actions because they had been discussing health system and UHC issues for a long time. The UHC preparations created more dialogue between actors at different levels of the health system. We’ve worked with health system leaders to show them how innovations they’ve implemented for the Covid response can be applied to addressing universal health care challenges.

A large challenge is that social media is a hotspot for misinformation. Everyone thinks they’re an expert in epidemiology and medicine! Misinformation has been a challenge in the face of disseminating accurate information about Covid. One of the largest problems is that misinformation around vaccines on social media contributes to vaccine hesitancy.

In terms of my experiences, a lot of my work for ThinkWell is grounded in strong inter-personal relationships and face-to-face conversations with Filipino health stakeholders. Filipinos aren’t used to working virtually because you normally have to sit down with someone if you want to get something done. That’s been a big challenge to overcome.

Has there been anything that’s inspired you during the pandemic in the Philippines?

In April, May, and June of last year, was a large community mobilization in Western Visayas, a region, to address pandemic needs at the community level. Science high schools created alcohol and distributed it across hospitals. Engineering schools mass produced face shields. Then there were a lot of food drives during lockdown.

Guimaras, an island province, that is world renowned for mangos has its harvest in the summer. Due to lockdowns and reduced global demand for mangos, there was a surplus of mangos, so the local economy was struggling. The local government lowered the prices for the mangos so neighboring provinces could afford to purchase mangos. Because of that, the mangos didn’t go to waste and the farmers got paid!

What does vaccine roll-out look like in the Philippines?

The global vaccine access inequities are quite sad. Philippines just received a donation of vaccine from China but we haven’t procured any yet. Vaccine preparations in the Philippines are ongoing. Filipinos have been surveyed on whether they would take a vaccine and about 60-70 percent of people are willing, but some don’t want vaccine from China. Of course, the best vaccine is the one that is available to you.

What has it meant for you to both be working on Covid-related issues and be directly impacted by the pandemic? In other words, how has your work on the pandemic affected how you experience the pandemic?

My team and I helped the Department of Health and other health stakeholders make sense of Covid data and communicate the data via policy notes. (Read more here.)

After the initial four months of strict lockdown, we picked back up our UHC work with provinces. We helped provincial health leaders see how the integration work they’ve done for the Covid response can be applied to UHC.

Some of my work involves meeting with health workers and people who work with health workers. So I’ve been worried about potentially getting Covid from my work and then transmitting it to my family. It’s nerve-wracking, the anxiety of potentially exposing people because of the nature of your work.

What is your personal biggest lesson learned from the past 12 months?

Before Covid, we took for granted the liberties that we have. We could travel freely and have meals wherever we wanted. With the lockdown, you get to see what the essentials things are in your life. I’m grateful to not be in metro Manila, the capital. I live in Iloilo City and I’m grateful to be in an area with nature, open spaces, and beaches nearby.

Finally, on a personal note, where do you want to travel to once it’s safe to travel? 

I haven’t been outside of the country before, so I want to travel internationally, perhaps on assignment for ThinkWell!