BATANGAS, Philippines: The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology on Friday (Jul 23) night lowered the alert status for Taal volcano from level 3 to 2 (out of 5), effectively shrinking the defined danger zone.
The alert level had been raised to 3 on Jul 1, following an eruption that lasted just five minutes. But for the people living around the active volcano, it had been the latest in a series of struggles for more than a year.
Within a 7km radius of Taal's crater stands five villages. An evacuation order following the Jul 1 eruption emptied them out, sending their inhabitants scattered across government centres, makeshift shelters and for some, the homes of those willing to take them in.
Eusty Deomampo is one such host. In the compound of her home, she and her husband have a hut, hastily put together with plywood and rust-covered metal roofing. There is no proper flooring and there is just enough space for a bed.
When it rains, the families have to contend with muddy ground and a leaking roof. Despite these less-than-ideal conditions, Mrs Deomampo says this is part of being Filipino: Providing a lifeline to loved ones in need, undeterred by having very little to give.
"Even though there's a lot of us here right now, I tell my husband to extend whatever help we can," she tells me in Filipino.
"My husband is a construction worker … He has no steady job. If it is a good day and we are able to eat as a couple, then my relatives will also eat.
"Even if there's a pandemic, there's COVID-19 or the volcano (erupting), whatever happens, happens. As long as we're together helping each other out," she added.
But even those offering help need assistance themselves. A sign outside Mrs Deomampo's home reads: "Taal volcano victim". Outside the 7km danger zone are houses with similar signs, indicating that displaced families live there.
Adding to the crunch are evacuees who have opted against seeking help at government evacuation centres, where capacity has been limited further by safe distancing protocols. The fear of catching COVID-19 has also discouraged people from going to such facilities.
COVID-19: THE DANGER OF DEBT
One of those Mrs Deomampo is hosting is her mother Adoracion Suarez, who was forced to leave her home in one of the five high-risk villages near Taal volcano.
Mrs Suarez is no stranger to the destructive powers of Taal, having survived a 1965 eruption that claimed 200 lives. Unwilling to give up land that she had inherited, she returned soon after.
Mrs Suarez was a 5th grader during the explosive 1965 eruption. She remembers houses destroyed by flaming rock fragments raining down on them.
But even the 58-year-old survivor is stumped by the catastrophe brought on by the global pandemic.
"My biggest worry is really the pandemic. I might get infected. I can't risk it. I have comorbidities. I might get COVID-19," she says, explaining why, like many others, she did not seek shelter at a government facility.
"We have no money for hospital expenses."
In a 2020 study published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Acta Medica Philippina, the total hospital expenses for most of the 619 COVID-19 patients at Manila's Philippine General Hospital came up to between PHP101,000 to PHP150,000 ($US2,078 to $US3,118), an unaffordable sum for many Filipinos.
Rates at the Philippine General Hospital are already considered one of the lowest but beds are usually in short supply. Elsewhere, a COVID-19 patient with mild pneumonia can expect to face hospital bills of up to PHP500,000 – enough to plunge a family into debt.
Mrs Suarez's fears are well-founded. Family expenses are mounting. She needs medication for hypertension and arthritis keeps her from working.
Her son, who used to be the family breadwinner, is now bedridden after having survived a stroke. Mrs Suarez serves as his caregiver, assisting him in basic tasks which he can no longer perform independently, like taking a bath. Another daughter has an intellectual disability and is caring for a baby she recently bore after being raped. All are evacuees.
FOOD VS SAFETY
Just a few metres away from Mrs Deomampo's hut, two other houses have put out that familiar sign as a call for help. "EVACUEES", it reads.
Fourteen displaced families – made up of around 60 people, all related - now live in the two small bungalows owned by relatives.
"We have kids with us. It's hard to join crowded centres," explained 64-year-old Maria Cipres.
They, too, are afraid of catching COVID-19 in state facilities. But they are also running out of food, which is provided free at these centres.
"[We rely] on relatives handing us food here," she says, adding that they have yet to receive aid from the government.
Government figures as of Jul 22 show that 6,027 families or 21,789 people have joined pre-emptive evacuation efforts since the Jul 1 eruption. More than 70 per cent of them live outside government evacuation sites.
National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council spokesperson Mark Timbal said the evacuation of families from high-risk areas was smoother for the July 2021 eruption, compared to the much larger one on Jan 12, 2020, which displaced hundreds of thousands.
"We have a more prepared and cooperative population," Mr Timbal said. "We have refined our contingency plan for Taal emergency, thanks to the cooperation of all relevant agencies."
The eruption this month was not the first time Mrs Deomampo's relatives have had to uproot from their homes near the volcano.
When Taal erupted in January last year, they had to trek through the jungle. With toddlers in tow, the men in the family used a type of Filipino machete, known as a bolo, to painstakingly carve escape paths in the thick undergrowth. Few thought they would survive.
Since then, it's been one gut punch after another, as evacuees struggle with the uncertainty of an active volcano, a raging pandemic and not knowing where the next meal might come from.
As of Jul 8, more than 8,000 family food packs have been delivered to local government units.
But many more are falling through the cracks. From housing to food, basic necessities are going unmet for those outside government centres.
For displaced families waiting for the volcano to quieten down, adversity has brought them closer, says Mrs Deomampo.
"Even if there's a pandemic, there's COVID-19 or the volcano (erupting), whatever happens, happens. As long as we're together helping each other out."