COVID-19 in the Philippines: A Q&A with Community Agent Jenny Gramo.

Posted on 04/20/2020

Grameen Community Agent outside rural sari sari shop
Community Agent Jenny Gramo outside her sari sari shop in Badiangan.

You may have met Jenny Gramo on our website or when reading about her in our Fall newsletter. To earn desperately needed income for her family, Jenny opened a sari sari story – a type of neighborhood convenience store – in her small town of Badiangan, 39 kilometers from Iloilo City in the Philippines. From the time Jenny opened her shop, neighbors have relied on her for canned goods, cooking oil and a gathering place for the latest news. Once Jenny became a Grameen Community Agent offering financial services right in her store, they relied on her to make cash transactions, pay bills and save money – also saving them from the expensive and often grueling trip to the nearest bank in Iloilo City.

Now Jenny and her neighbors are facing down the COVID-19 pandemic, with all the needs, fears and hopes that come with it. We recently spoke with Jenny by phone to learn firsthand how she, her family and her community are managing.

Q: First of all, Jenny, how are you and your family?

A: We are okay. My husband (an overseas Filipino worker) came home last February. A few weeks after that the community quarantine was announced. I find solace that we are all together during this time.

Q: Are you able to access basic needs such as food, water, and medicines for you and your family?

A: We are able to access basic necessities, though it is hard to do errands since we are only allowed to go out every Monday and Thursday. Also, only one member of the household can go out most of the time to buy the necessities. In our case, it is my husband since he can drive the motorcycle to buy our supplies in the town proper.

Q: How is the situation in your barangay (village)? Have there been any COVID-19 positive individuals in your family or neighborhood?

A: There are no reported cases in our place, but we are following all the precautions as mandated by the government. We follow the rules as we do not want to pay any penalty if we are caught. The community quarantine here was implemented at the same time they implemented the policy in Metro Manila and the local government has been attentive with the needs of the people.

Q: Where do you usually get news updates?

A: The barangay has a Facebook page and group chat, and they are able to provide the necessary updates through those channels.

Q: What support have you received from your local government or other support agencies/organizations?

A: We have received two relief packages so far from the local government. Some private individuals and organizations are also donating. It is a good practice that the donations are centralized, so everyone in the neighborhood receives a portion. Since the community quarantine, the barangay also designated three tricycles for transportation for free. This is helpful for families who do not have their own vehicles since other forms of mass transportation has been suspended. You sometimes have to wait for your turn, but since this is given for free it is still a welcome help as families can save with their transportation costs.

Q: If the lockdown is extended, how do you think that will affect you and your family?

A: If the situation will be extended, there might be a need for me to close my store as it is getting harder to buy supplies due to the restriction of the number of items that you can buy in the groceries. For example, right now I am only allowed to buy up to 5 cans of sardines which can be easily sold in my store within a day. After that, I will have to wait for our schedule again to restock. If this will be extended, I will be left with no choice but to prioritize the needs of the family and just buy goods for our own consumption. Despite this, I will still retain the agent business due to the high demand.

Q: What does your business activity look like? What process in your usual business routine has been affected the most because of the situation?

A: Right now, the demand for (pre-paid phone) airtime top-up, bills payment and money remittance has significantly increased due to the restriction of movement. My revolving wallet fund of PHP 10,000 for a month, only lasts for 1-2 days now. My clients are also asking for cash out services, but I can only do cash in money remittance. Unfortunately, I have to decline some customers at times if they are remitting a big amount of money since it will easily deplete my e-wallet and I will not be able to do other transactions.

Q: What are you hearing from your customers, family and friends about how life has changed for them?

A: Those who are not transacting before, started paying their bills in my store. Since each household is only allowed to go out twice a week, it is helpful to them to settle their dues in my store and prioritize other needs when travelling to the town proper. To avoid waiting time, I sometimes also offer to bring the proof of transaction in their house.

Q: What concerns your customers most?

A: Some clients are having a hard time paying their bills right now. For some who are able to share this concern, and if the amount is within my capacity to help, I extend credit in settling their bills, then they will just pay me once they get their money. I don’t charge any additional fee for that since I know that everyone is having a hard time because of the situation.

Q: What are your immediate goals, or things you wish to do after the quarantine ends?

A: I think because of the situation, what I personally learned is the importance of having enough savings and an emergency fund. After this, I will be more particular in preparing for situations like this as we all have to be prepared and not rely on the government.

Q: How is Grameen helping you? Are you receiving continued SMS messages from Grameen/Posible?

A: Yes, the messages are helpful, especially now that I have higher demand for payment services. We also rotate manning the store, so the SMS is a good platform for reminders in managing our limited e-wallet fund. When I receive an SMS, I always check our remaining balance so we can strategize when and how to rebalance. I particularly like the message last Monday, since it is very timely (a reminder to pre-fund the wallet ahead since it will be a long weekend in the Philippines in observance of the holy week).

Q: How is your community supporting each other right now?

A: Our community is tight knit, and everyone is willing to be of help. Since there are predetermined schedules for every household, we sometimes ask each other if we need anything. Even if one cannot provide assistance financially, any action will be appreciated. No one is selfish, everyone is willing to extend help.

Q: If there is one thing that gives you hope and strength to address each day?

A: What gives me hope right now is that our family is complete, and we have enough food on our table. The camaraderie within the community also helps in staying positive. I am already thankful that no one in the family is sick. There are days that you will just have to find other forms of recreation to keep being optimistic.

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