Whither the Asean lag­gard?

The Manila Times - - Front Page - SUN­DAY STO­RIES MARLEN V. RONQUILLO

THAT growth would ei­ther stall or con­tract in a pan­demic regime is to­tally ex­pected. Stalled economies and con­tract­ing economies are the univer­sal wages of a pan­demic, blud­geon­ing both de­vel­oped and emerg­ing economies, spar­ing no one, in­clud­ing closed- off Stal­in­ist hold­outs. A few coun­tries, how­ever, are hit bru­tally and hard, wasted to the core. Such is the tragic case of the Philip­pines in this pan­demic regime. Just last year, the na­tional mood was up­beat punc­tu­ated by chest-beat­ing about the rosy fu­ture of “Asia’s fastest­grow­ing econ­omy.” There was so much talk about the steady climb to a mid­dlein­come econ­omy within the near fu­ture.

In a sad turn of events, the PhilipM pines will close out 2020 as the Asean re­gion’s worst eco­nomic per­former with a pro­jected 8 per­cent to 9 per­cent drop in the coun­try’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP). The op­ti­mistic es­tiM mates that the GDP drop would not breach the 6-per­cent level, which has been the av­er­age and un­in­ter­rupted growth rate over the past sev­eral years, has been deemed both un­re­al­is­tic and overop­ti­mistic. A less-than 4 per­cent con­trac­tion, which was what the eco­nomic man­agers ex­pected in their June pro­jec­tions, was based on an imag­i­nary third quar­ter jump in ecoM nomic ac­tiv­i­ties. And a fourth quar­ter re­turn to near nor­malcy.

That the Philip­pine econ­omy will ex­pe­ri­ence the sharpest con­trac­tion in the Asean this year is one of the high­lights of a re­gional as­sess­ment con­tained in the In­ter­na­tional MonM etary Fund’s (IMF) World Eco­nomic Out­look. The IMF said the PhilipM pine econ­omy would con­tract by 8.3 per­cent this year, the sharpest drop in the Asean re­gion. Some in­ter­na­tional banks and rat­ing agen­cies had grimM mer fore­casts on Philip­pine growth at a 9 per­cent or more con­trac­tion.

It was not merely co­in­ci­den­tal that, as of mid-Oc­to­ber, we have also the most num­ber of Covid-19 cases in the Asean, with more in­fec­tions than In­done­sia with its more than 300 mil­lion peo­ple. The run­away coron­avirus dis­ease 2019 num­ber is at the root of a crip­pled econ­omy. The only Asean coun­try ex­pected to grow in 2020 is Viet­nam and the out­lier growth is driven by Viet­nam’s early whole-of­na­tion ap­proach to rein in the virus. While other coun­tries, in­clud­ing the Philip­pines, of­ten in­voke “wholeof-na­tion” strate­gies to con­tain the re­sult­ing pan­demic, it was Viet­nam that vig­or­ously com­ple­mented such talk with prac­tice

So why are we in this mess, AseM an’s lag­gard econ­omy with the most virus in­fec­tions? How did we turn the tri­umphal­ism of 2019 into the hor­ror show of 2020? The tragic thing is that no one with grav­i­tas, ei­ther from the pub­lic or pri­vate sec­tor, is ask­ing this ques­tion. There is no recog­ni­tion of the dou­ble whammy from the cen­ters of power. There are stan­dard-is­sue state­ments on the path to re­cov­ery but these of­fi­cial blovi­a­tions are clearly obliviM ous of the depth and se­ri­ous­ness of the mess we are in, on both the sick peo­ple and the ail­ing econ­omy.

The broad strokes of a pan­demic re­cov­ery pro­gram are sup­posed to be writ­ten in two of­fi­cial docuM ments. The ur­gent pieces of leg­is­laM tion such as Bayani­han 1 and BayaM ni­han 2, emer­gency laws to stop the bleed­ing. The year-round work to­ward re­cov­ery from the pan­demic, ide­ally, should be the end-all and be-all of the 2021 na­tional bud­get. A na­tional bud­get tells the story of a coun­try’s hopes and dreams, its priM ori­ties, its goals and am­bi­tions big and small, re­mem­ber. In the ideal world, the path to re­cov­ery, the way out of the cur­rent slump and health cri­sis should be the dom­i­nant nar­raM tive of the na­tional bud­get.

If you parse the na­tional bud­get, both its broad strokes and minu­tiae, you will get the sink­ing feel­ing that the P4.5-tril­lion pro­posed bud­get for next year hardly rec­og­nizes the hole we are in and pan­demic re­sponse is in­ad­e­quate and spotty at best.

Look at this fig­ure and you can see the 2021 na­tional bud­get’s tor­tured pri­or­i­ties. A sum of P150 bil­lion is pro­posed for flood con­trol, one of the seg­ments of the bud­get of the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Works and High­ways (DPWH), the main in­fra agency. The pro­posed bud­get for the en­tire Depart­ment of Health is P130 bil­lion. The grand to­tal of the 2021 bud­get pro­posed for the DPWH is more than P600 bil­lion.

There is no sin­gle virus- conM tain­ment pro­ject in that en­tire DPWH bud­get. Nei­ther is there an in­fra pro­ject for virus con­trol in the bud­get of the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, the other main in­fra­struc­ture-cen­tric agency.

If the uni­ver­sally ac­cepted strat­egy to­ward nor­malcy is con­tain­ment of the virus, why is the con­struc­tion of roads, bridges, air­ports and sea­ports the ob­ses­sive fo­cus of the 2021 naM tional bud­get? There is no science that says spend­ing on in­fra­struc­ture is the path to Covid-19 con­trol and the re­turn of life and eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties to nor­malcy.

The coun­try can only re­bound eco­nom­i­cally, and this is not even rocket science once it puts the virus un­der con­trol. The re­opened busiM nesses and pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties should be worry-free about turn­ing out into petri dishes for virus in­fecM tions and spread. With­out clar­ity on time­lines for the vac­cine’s availM abil­ity, the na­tional strat­egy should be virus con­trol and con­tain­ment adopted by coun­tries that have sucM cess­fully over­come the coron­avirus.

We can’t wish our way out of the cur­rent slump, fear and un­cer­tainty. Nei­ther can we “Build, Build, Build” out of the cur­rent na­tional anx­i­eties and eco­nomic melt­down.

The pan­demic is sup­posed to shake loose the old or­der and shatM ter par­a­digms. In­stead we are stuck in un­ten­able or­tho­dox­ies.

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