When another strict lockdown shut down her furniture shop in Quezon City, Ana Patricia Non sat inside and stewed. The Covid-19 pandemic has been brutal in the Philippines, leaving millions of Filipinos hungry and unemployed, including her own workers. Government aid has been too little and wasn’t reaching the people who needed it most, and the country’s already wide inequality gap was growing by the day.

Non came up with a simple plan. On April 14, she put a bamboo cart outside her store and stocked it with canned goods, rice, and vegetables. On a small cardboard sign, she wrote what would become the fundamental principles of a nationwide movement: “Give what you can, take only what you need.”

Thousands of people queued in long lines for food. A photograph that Non took of her cart and posted on Facebook went viral. Within two weeks, more than 800 community pantries had been set up across the country. Donations poured in. A crowdfunding campaign in the U.S. raised $20,000. Filipino geographers built a crowdsourced map out of a GitHub repository, which pointed users to the nearest community pantry. On Twitter, people used the hashtag #CommunityPantryPH to keep up the momentum. 

On April 20, Non had to shut down her stall for 24 hours after the movement came under attack online by pro-government trolls. The influential head of an anti-communist task force called the movement “satanic.” This “red-tagging” — branding people as leftists and enemies of the state to discredit them — has become a grimly predictable part of running any social movement in the Philippines. In a country where the government has been fighting a communist insurgency for more than 50 years and where extrajudicial violence is common, getting red-tagged can be like having a bounty put on your head. 

“Many people are hungry, and the attacks are directed to the person who started this?” Non said. “What is that? It’s shallow. They have too much free time.”

Labeling progressive initiatives as destabilizing acts against the state dates back to the country’s colonial history. Sociologist Jayeel Cornelio said that, throughout 20th-century Philippines, community-based organizations were easy targets because their progressive actions could be tarred as socialist. “This is not new,” Cornelio said. “The state is not able to discern the nuances.” 

Duterte’s authoritarian administration has framed the communist movement as public enemy number one, having moved on from an earlier narrative of a war on drugs, in which thousands of poor, urban Filipinos were killed. 

Duterte is a populist leader, who portrays himself as a swaggering man of the people. Charitable organizations that highlight and try to fix social problems, and give ordinary people control, can be interpreted as a threat to his rule, which is why the community pantry was targeted.

“Many people are hungry and the attacks are directed to the person who started this? … It’s shallow. They have too much free time.”

“The pantry is the moment for the general people to reclaim [their] sense of control,” Arjan Aguirre, a political scientist at Ateneo de Manila University, said. 

The red-tagging took off when, on April 19, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade, spokesperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, a body created by the Duterte administration to counter the supposed socialist threat, wrote about the community pantry on the task force’s Facebook page, which has more than 108,000 followers, claiming the movement was a recruitment tool for the left. Another agency spokesperson, Lorraine Badoy, posted similar diatribes on her personal Facebook account.

Trolls came for the movement as well. Throughout Duterte’s presidency, internet trolls, who call themselves diehard Duterte supporters, or DDS, have often amplified the administration’s misinformation and piled on during red-tagging. Parlade said that it was these supporters who had first tipped him off to the supposed threat of the movement.

Non was called a professional extortionist, a “master of lies,” and a terrorist and accused of raising funds for the New People’s Army, a Communist militant group.

Even the president himself weighed in. In a recorded address on April 28, Duterte said, “Those sons of bitches aren’t thinking. They just want to show to the people that they care, but they do not really care because of their ignorance.”

People wait in line for food at the Maharlika Street Community Pantry in Quezon City.
Kimberly dela Cruz

Non said that her movement is not political; it is just filling a desperate social need. The Philippines economy is driven by millions of informal workers, many of whom live in poverty. Lockdowns, curfews, and checkpoints have destroyed their sources of income because, unlike the middle classes, they cannot work from home.

“Some people don’t have that option,” Non said. “They need to sacrifice their health and safety for their families.”

The government has given some cash subsidies to people who have lost their incomes during the pandemic. In early April, the government started handing out up to $80 each in cash to poorer households; thousands of Filipinos queued, often for hours, to collect it.

“No matter how much cash aid is handed out, people deserve social welfare. People need food; they need homes,” Non said.

The red-tagging has actually led Filipinos to rally around the community pantry movement, and donations have increased. New pantries have sprouted across the country.

“Before the community pantry, Filipinos and the poor have been stripped of their dignity,” Non said. “People who put down the community pantry, discredit the volunteers, donations, and the Filipino struggle.”