Two days before the President was to deliver his State of the Nation Address, media outlets carried photos of thousands of people inside the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex. The sporting facility has been designated by the national government as a holding facility for so-called locally stranded individuals (LSIs) who were scheduled to leave Metro Manila for their home provinces. They were there to be processed and tested for the coronavirus before being sent home. As of this writing, thousands more have arrived at the venue, most of them unregistered but hoping to be sent home.
The images were heart-breaking. People were crammed tightly in the stadium, with only the canopy providing shelter from the elements. Among them were pregnant women, children, and the elderly. The few belongings they have with them appeared to be hastily packed. Those outside the venue stood in line, even in the rain. One can see the anxiety and desperation in their faces.
What I found disturbing was the failure of the authorities to provide even the most basic amenities, and enforce physical distancing and the wearing of face masks. This is, after all, a government holding facility. But no one, it seems, had thought of providing the evacuees with free face masks. Under these appalling conditions, the risks of infection are undeniably high. Local executives in the provinces had every right to be angry. The facility might as well be an incubation center for the coronavirus.
The deplorable situation speaks eloquently of government’s inefficiency and indifference. On a symbolic level, the images of a mass of people desperate to join the exodus to the provinces convey a yearning to escape from danger and uncertainty. This may as well be the state of the nation.
What I found frustrating is that even at this time government has yet to come out with a cohesive approach to fighting the pandemic and reviving the economy. Metro Manila and other major urban areas have been on lockdown for more than four months now, but infections continue to rise. Last week, the figures exceeded 80,000. Over seven million Filipinos are out of work, and an estimated 2,000 small and medium-sized firms have been shuttered. Hunger is at a record high. According to the Social Weather Stations (SWS) July survey on hunger, 3.9 million Filipinos experienced moderate hunger during the survey period, while 1.3 million experienced severe hunger.
But in the midst of a runaway pandemic crying for a coherent and competent response, several congressmen have deemed it more appropriate to push for a revision of the Constitution. This is yet another example of the administration and its allies taking advantage of the pandemic to push political and personal interests. The Charter Change agenda, presumed by many as dead in the water, has been reanimated.
In an interview, the speaker sought to downplay the initiative. Changing the Constitution, he said in an interview, is not a priority. That was what he said about the Anti-Terror Bill and the franchise application of ABS-CBN. We all know what happened.
The impetus for Charter Change is a supposed clamor from local executives, with some of its leaders arguing that localities could be more effective if certain provisions were amended, among them the provisions on foreign ownership, Internal Revenue Allotments (IRA), and the term limits of elected local officials.
I will not dwell on the merits of the first two proposed amendments. These have been discussed in previous columns. What concerns me, and most everyone else, is the timing of this renewed push for Charter Change. It smacks of opportunism and indifference.
Right now, most of the people spend every waking day thinking of ways not to get infected with the coronavirus. They worry about where to get their next meal. Political matters, no matter how it will impact on their lives, hardly concern them. And it is this pre-occupation with survival that emboldens Charter Change advocates. Like the gutting of ABS-CBN and the hasty approval of the Anti-Terror Law, they are willing to bet that they can get away with lifting term limits because people are too afraid to be angry.
There will be a time to discuss the pros and cons of opening the economy to foreign businesses, and raising the IRA. But not now.
And now is also not the time to tinker with term limits. To make this a priority in the midst of a pandemic is not only deplorable and self-serving, it borders on criminal.