OF SUBSTANCE AND SPIRIT
Traditionally, a State of the Nation Address (SONA) serves to rally the nation to the cause of the government. It is meant to update the country on government policies as well as report on the social fabric and the economy.
When the elected president addresses the representatives of the people in Congress, he is expected to deliver a strong message of leadership, a clear strategy and a roadmap. A SONA is expected to elucidate and to inspire hope. This is so during times of peace. It is more so in a time of crisis.
Was the President’s July 21 recognition that “perhaps our number one problem today is COVID,” carried over in Monday’s SONA?
We expected the SONA to convey that leadership is no longer confused about who or what the real enemy, a compelling central message and some notions about governance and risks. We expected to have some idea on the state of these notions.
The penultimate SONA fell short of these expectations. At this time, the SONA could have unveiled a unified and coherent strategy against the pandemic and its consequences.
Instead, the SONA was a desiderata and litany of issues, many of which have little present urgency. The opportunity in Congress was lost.
If the broadsheets’ headlines and social media newsfeeds are any indication —- then, confusion and distraction from the ultimate battle against COVID19 is apparent.
BusinessWorld bannered: “Duterte fails to detail recovery plan,” and reported that while the President spoke at length about the government’s response to the pandemic, “analysts, business leaders, and opposition lawmakers said he failed to say how exactly he plans to go about (recovery).”
Manila Bulletin’s headline was: “Duterte bats for death penalty,” and rolled out the proposed Bayanihan 2 law and the return of the death penalty for drug-related offenses as “among the 21 priority bills endorsed… to the joint session of Congress….”
The Philippine Daily Inquirer shouted “Duterte warns Smart, Globe of expropriation.” The paper focused on the President’s directive to the two telcos to “improve their service by December or he will lead the development of the telco industry without them.” There were separate accounts of Duterte’s accomplishments, directives and plans of action, stingers against ABS-CBN and Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, the President’s roadmap and the SONA protests.
The Philippine Star focused on the President’s message not to despair as a vaccine against COVID-19 is just “around the corner.” This to us, reveals more of a passive approach of merely waiting, or at its best — petitioning China for a solution.
The President revealed that he made a plea to President Xi Jinping “that if they have the vaccine, can they allow us to be one of the first or if it is needed, if we have to buy it, that we will be granted credit so that we can normalize as fast as possible.” The glaring notion — consistent as the first day of the pandemic — is to just wait this out.
This notion was even more pronounced when the President spoke about our territorial claim on the West Philippine Sea. Resigned, he said that since “China is claiming it… (it) has the arms, (and) we do not have it…they are in possession.” He admitted, we cannot go to war — “I cannot afford it. Maybe some other president can, but I cannot… Wala akong magawa. I cannot…”
A notion is one’s understanding of a problem. A notion is an idea of how things should be done. It derives from the Latin “notio” which means “a general concept” and from the Greek “ennoia,” which is an “act of thinking.”
Thankfully, based on the numbers cited in the SONA, it appears our economic managers have a good notion and understanding of our macroeconomic situation. Clearly, we are in an economic recession and we will not be out of the woods perhaps until next year. While we faced the pandemic at the beginning of the year in a strong position, it would be difficult to maintain such an assessment today. With the contraction in output, job losses, and sagging consumer and business sentiments, against the backdrop of very weak external merchandise and services trade, it would take more than a good slogan to regain economic momentum.
For the information of our dear readers, the IMF’s website tracks the economic and financial measures undertaken by the Fund’s 189 member countries. The report indicates that the Philippines is on the right track in terms of economic policies. The Fund’s suggestions on how governments may aid their people and firms are essentially the stuff of current Philippine public policies.
IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva’s piece is prescient. For a resilient recovery, the great challenge lies in gradually reopening the economy even as the corona virus “is still very much with us.” Georgieva says this will “require policy agility and action to secure a durable and shared recovery.”
The action has so far cost the global economy some $11 trillion and massive central bank liquidity injections and these are expected to “put a floor under the global economy.” Despite this, only a partial recovery is expected in 2021. The Fund anticipates the risks of a possible second wave of the viral mutant, stretched asset valuations, volatile commodity prices, rising protectionism, and political instability.
The Philippines is well aware of the domestic challenge to sustain targeted lifelines. Public support continues to protect people and workers through cash transfers. This is so even with leakages along the way. There is support for firms through accommodative monetary and banking policies. Financial stability is preserved through regulatory relief and liquidity support to both corporates and banks.
On collective efforts, the Philippines is very much engaged in the cooperative framework of the international and regional financial institutions including such groupings as the ASEAN, ASEAN +3, and other similar set-ups. This is critical if countries, including the Philippines, could enhance cooperation in guaranteeing adequate health supplies, avoiding disruption in the global trade system, ensuring funding for countries and strengthening global financial safety nets.
While these are good measures, the SONA gave only a hint where all these good things are going. Instead, the SONA revealed an economic and political management with focus on neither the bull’s eye nor the steel plates.
We need a clearer vision that would integrate all these individual policies into a coherent, strategic course of action against COVID-19 and its damaging effects on both life and livelihood.
At the moment, we simply cannot afford to indulge in notions of limited current consequences or fight unnecessary battles.
If there was coherence in our strategy against our current crisis, then broadsheets would have focused on how President Duterte intends to bring us out of our present wasteland into an encampment to restart the economy. We don’t fancy staying in Egypt for 430 years before a Moses leads us out into the wilderness for the next 40 years before we reach Canaan.
The SONA recounted how money was spent during this pandemic. But it is glaring that funds were spent, not so much on health, and not so much on containment measures but rather in social amelioration efforts. It is a necessary mitigation measure but this cannot be a permanent strategy. It is expensive and it is not actually leading directly to production activities.
It is therefore not surprising why we continue to nurse a rampaging virus whose epidemiological curve refuses to flatten. In this context, economic recovery becomes more difficult. We could have mitigated this emerging situation of gradually opening up the economy while addressing the virus if the health sector was more competent.
The four-pillar strategy of the government could have been the logical basis for the President’s SONA because it contains the broad contours of more coherent, integrated public policies against the virus while outlining an economic bounce back program. Rallying the people with a clear roadmap would have solicited greater support for the remaining days of this Administration. The SONA could have reflected greater singularity of purpose and leadership.
Instead, the SONA reflected a variety of notions that could produce less desirable results in governance and performance. The state of these notions would ultimately affect the state of our nation.