COVID-19, unemployment, and positive government responses

Published May 12, 2020, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin



J. Art D. Brion (RET.)
Justice Art D. Brion (Ret.)

Other than health, labor and employment are the areas of our lives hardest hit by COVID-19 and the quarantine (ECQ) it demands. Unfortunately, our most recent statistics do not yet reflect the actual employment realities, but they cannot but be grim.

Before COVID-19 hit us, the January, 2020, statistics showed that we had a 15-year-old-and-over population of 72,997,000, of whom 61,700,000 were employed.  Our unemployment rate was 5.3%, a record within the immediate past ranges.

What will happen when the full blast of COVID-19 hits us is not difficult to figure out.

With communities under lockdown, the actual extent may not yet fully register in the 2nd quarter 2020 statistics because of the prevailing work-from-home arrangements. But soon enough, businesses – particularly the small and medium – may have to reduce their workforce or close their doors for sheer lack of business under lockdown conditions. Due to lack of meaningful opportunities, job seekers cannot likewise move.

Even if the ECQ is partially lifted or relaxed, the move will not directly and immediately normalize business operations. The relaxation may in fact be very gradual to keep COVID-19 infections (currently beyond the 10,000 mark) continually in check.

A distinct possibility is the continuation of the ECQ regime in the meantime that no discernible flattening of the curve has been established. UP professors have estimated that COVID-19 infections could spike to 24,000 (from its 10,000 level) if an immediate relaxation of the ECQ is made. This spike could  “squander the gains” so far made. Other academicians agree with these conclusions.

The loss of the initial gains is not insignificant under our present infection levels if only because higher levels could stretch our health system to its breaking point. Medical frontliners have not only been dying; after 3 ½  months of fighting COVID-19, the remaining ones are exhausted or are nearing exhaustion.

With a population density of 70,000 per square kilometer for Manila, the UP estimate is far from remote. The spread of COVID-19 could perhaps even be higher if COVID-19 will massively hit Manila’s densely populated areas.

The tension under these realities is: Between lives and livelihood, which should the government prioritize?

To continue with the January statistics, they already show that while unemployment is at 5.3%, underemployment rate is at 14.5%.

Secretary Pernia of the NEDA, before his resignation, estimated that the unemployment percentage could rise to double-digit if a recession results from the lockdown. Presumably, the underemployment figures – or those who are employed but who wish additional employment to satisfy their needs – cannot then be far behind. The ranks of both the unemployed and the underemployed will surely increase as this year’s new graduates are added.

Even without a recession, consider further that the hardest hit would include a cross-section of our business community, among them, those in accommodation (such as hotels), food services (restaurants, canteens), manufacturing (across industries), retail (such as mall outlets and groceries), transportation, and business and administrative activities (such as those engaged in office work or in BPO services).

The informal sectors should not also be forgotten. Among them are the self-employed retailers, the small farmers catering to small food markets, the carpenters, plumbers, and skilled craftsmen who work on their own and who are vulnerable to the fluctuations of their clientele’s incomes.

Last but not the least, our OFWs will heavily feel the adverse effects when COVID-19 strikes their foreign workplaces. To quote the ILO: “Large reductions are foreseen in the Arab States (8.1 percent, equivalent to 5 million full-time workers), Europe (7.8 percent, or 12 million full-time workers), and Asia and the Pacific (7.2 percent, 125 million full-time workers).”

Loss of work in their foreign posts may mean their repatriation and inclusion among our unemployed; at the very least, it translates to lesser or no remittances to their Philippine families.

On the part of business, the work-from-home arrangement cannot but affect productivity and profitability. Businesses heavily dependent on person-to-person marketing will see their sales dip as their agents are immobilized by the lockdown and as their support operations are hampered by lockdown restrictions. Buyers’ lack of mobility, on the other hand, will be a telling blow on all businesses, save perhaps for those who can sell on-line.

All these translate to continuing hardships for the greater number of our people,  particularly those from Metro Manila and other urban areas. Under these circumstances, government has to respond, particularly to the youths, through very imaginative approaches.

To be sure, its responses cannot be confined to the enforcement of the ECQ and the distribution of dole-outs. Government financial resources are not unlimited.  More importantly, our people have to be taught to help themselves, with government guidance and assistance.

An example of a possible government response is the free mass training (through distance learning) of those interested in skills that can be taught via television or the internet, under a system of testing that will earn the trainees qualifying certificates.

A collaboration among the TESDA, the Department of Science and Technology, the DOLE, the University of the Philippines, and the government press office can certainly make this kind of project a reality.

For example, computer skills (programming and other computer-related skills) can be offered under a system that checks attendance and tests the trainees for certificates. This approach may encourage people to innovate during lockdown, while preparing them for normalization.

English reading and writing proficiency skills should be very valuable to our younger workers who have lost their appetite for reading and writing.  Encouragement can be provided through free Internet access to on-line libraries that will allow on-line reading of selected books and materials.

Even law schools may benefit from this type of training given the pronounced deficiency in English communication skills of many Bar examinees as shown in past Bar exams. English proficiency may even improve the performance of the examinees in the 2021 Bar exams.

The government may partner with the private sector in providing free Internet access in exchange for government-sponsored training of people in skills that businesses may need to compete for COVID-19-induced opportunities within our region. Other regional neighbors are already undertaking these types of activities.

Government may perhaps even take a direct hand in reviving business activities and opening new opportunities by setting up Internet malls (jobs and goods exchanges managed by government) where businesses – big or small – can register, advertise, and sell to direct buyers under government-enforced  guidelines that will ensure payment and delivery of the transacted items or services.

Locked-down businesses and clients will surely welcome this kind of government intervention. It may be a blessing for clients in need of services difficult to secure under lockdown conditions, such as carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and others similarly skilled craftsmen who can provide services under strict ECQ precautions.

All these are mentioned as food for thought to jump-start the government’s own thinking along these lines. We have enough government professionals and experts who can enrich, enliven, and implement these starting ideas. With active private sector participation, these ideas can immeasurably expand.

Let’s band together and show the world that this nation can lick not only COVID-19 but also its consequences and aftermath.

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