A year of ‘excellently’ living dangerously
IT has been more than a year since the pandemic started wreaking havoc around the world. While other countries seem to have gotten some semblance of normalcy, the Philippines has yet to strike a good balance between economic survival and health issues. The result is a distorted picture of a zero-sum game in which the Duterte administration loses in both health and economic fronts.
Since March 2020, the country has been placed by the government under the world’s longest and strictest lockdown, with the end view of slowing down the spread of Covid-19, but at the expense of paralyzing the wheels of commerce. We now find ourselves in another lockdown from March 29 to April 11, undergoing the same anti-pandemic formula which has not proved effective in the first place.
Such anemic pandemic response proved to be both disastrous on the economy, with many big and small businesses falling in the red, and inutile—with the lockdown failing to stop the spread of the coronavirus that has morphed into different and more contagious variants. Palace spokesman Harry Roque’s sidesplitting boast that the government pandemic management has been “excellent” only rubbed salt to injury. Not only patently false, it is insulting and insensitive, ref lecting the depths this government will plumb in order to spruce up its messy and inept pandemic response.
The 2020 lockdown, which bolted down 75 percent of the economy, brought huge losses in jobs and income. The National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) estimated that around P2.1 billion in wages are lost per day for every week of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Metro Manila and adjacent regions. During general community quarantine (GCQ), a looser form of lockdown, the amount is P700 million a day. According to an Asian Development Bank Institute study, around half of Filipino households that lose their income amid the coronavirus pandemic would have enough resources to cover necessary expenses for only up to two weeks.
Defeating the objective of the lockdown is the government’s paltry and tardy cash aid to poor households. Economists believe that the situation could not prevent people from going out to look for work. ING Bank Manila senior economist Nicholas Mapa was quoted as saying that “authorities should act fast and give out financial assistance if they want [the rate of] infections to slow down.” This month, the government will disburse from the unused funds under the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act an allotment of P1,000 in cash or in kind per person.
“The longer we delay stamping out the virus,” Mapa pointed out, “the higher the probability of a return to ECQ, and a quick revert to reopen the economy may backfire once more and result in a third installment of the ECQ series.” The ECQ, which is in effect in Metro Manila, Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna, and Cavite, Ateneo de Manila University economist Alvin Ang noted, will “affect the recovery and make it slower than what most anticipated.”
The Philippines only tasted a fleeting pandemic respite—still way below accepted standards—late last year when it logged a daily average of 2,000 to 3,000 active cases. But as businesses started to reopen and more people were allowed to move freely, the mutated virus quickly spread with daily active cases breaching the 10,000 mark. As of April 6, the country had 812,760 total active cases, 13,817 deaths, and 646,381 recovered patients.
By end-april, the number of Covid infections is projected to rupture the one million-mark. OCTA, an independent research group, said on Monday that, while the rate of infections has “started to slow down” in some Metro Manila cities, other parts of the region are recording “rapid increases” of new infections.
“The ECQ brought down the reproduction
number or the average number of people infected by one person to 1.6 from 1.9,” said OCTA Research fellow Guido David. Although it is still unclear how fast the infection rate will decrease, David cited that “right now, the trajectory we’re seeing is maybe 1.3 or 1.2 by the end of this coming week.”
A February survey report published by the Asean Studies Centre of the ISEAS-YUSOF Ishak Institute in Singapore—which the Duterte administration scoffed at—reveals that 53.7 percent of Filipinos are not too happy with the government’s pandemic response. The results make the respondents the most disapproving within the region of their leaders’ moves to address the health crisis.
Queried on what the government should do to better address the crisis, 72 percent of the disapproving Filipino respondents said that scientists and doctors must contribute more to public policy discussions. Some 58.3 percent said that the country must “invest in early warning systems for pandemic outbreak and research and development [R&D] for virus testing and vaccine development.”
The ECQ imposition comes on the heels of serious negligence: namely, the Philippine authorities’ failure to keep up with preventive measures adopted by neighboring countries and grossly underestimating the deadliness of the virus. What’s worse, instead of easing the overall burden that the virus unleashed on the country, the administration’s first and last resort—a variety of lockdown restrictions—has not only added a plethora of problems for the country, it failed to adequately address the primary crisis at hand: ensuring public health and safety.
In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, Filipinos, especially those from poor families, faced the distressing prospect of contending with hunger. With no available sources of income and virtually nonexistent savings, many homeless people and slum dwellers bore the brunt of the ECQ.
Everybody has high hopes that, with the anti-covid vaccine worldwide rollout, a return to some semblance of normalcy would be just around the corner. Unfortunately, the government’s inept pandemic response seems to be closely hewed to militarism. This flawed handling of the pandemic has long-term repercussions that present quite a distressing picture, even beyond the quarantine. It is a miserable one, blemished by a totalitarian signature, generating a global perception that the state is more committed to hauling people to jail and stuffing the wallets of Chinese businesses and their allies, rather than putting food on Filipino constituents’ tables.
Perhaps President Duterte is sidetracked by other issues, which to him have become personal: his relentless war on drugs and no-prisoners-taken stance against the armed wing of the Communist Party and its perceived supporters.
We’re now living in dangerous times. Alongside the pandemic, news stories of suspected drug addicts, lawyers, local politicians, media personalities getting waylaid or illegally arrested have been hogging the headlines. Now, death comes either from virus-containing droplets or the smoking guns of state actors. I cannot blame how some nations now perceive the Duterte administration as nothing but an expert in “painting houses.”