Quo Vadis, Noel?

Published August 10, 2020, 8:22 AM

by Jaime Laya

FAITH ON THE GROUND Noel R., 33, a construction worker who lost his job, on Plaza Miranda imploring the Black Nazarene’s mercy.  (Ali Vicoy)

Your employer? No, he’s disappeared. Malacañang ? A senator, your congressman? Your mayor and barangay captain? No—he can’t even get a bus ride home. Philhealth? Sorry no, they’re busy spending billions on IT and other urgencies. DOH? Out of the question, they’re figuring out what to do after August 18.

So jobless construction worker Noel R., in the prime of life at age 33, lies prone on Plaza Miranda’s hot pavement, appealing to the Black Nazarene, unseen but hopefully listening behind Quiapo church’s locked gates. Surely interceding for him and for the OFWs (a.k.a. unsung heroes) crammed into Rizal Memorial, is the penniless woman who died of starvation while waiting for a bus ride home to her small children in Bicol.

Covid-19, Wuhan Virus, Corona Veerus, Kung Flu—whatever you call it, is causing havoc in health, family and work life, schooling, and practically everything else, everywhere.

Many have died, more are infected, hospitals are overloaded and who knows when or how all these will end. St Luke’s QC and BGC, Makati Medical, Chinese General, are at full capacity.  Ospital ng Maynila is closing down for now. Doctors, nurses and auxiliary personnel—not enough of them to begin with—are burnt out, sick, or dead. 

A restaurant owner friend gave up. He just couldn’t continue paying rent, cooks, waiters, janitors, security and feed his family with no income going on five months now. Construction is on hold, leaving Noel and thousands others jobless. OFWs and cruise ship employees are returning. With public transport out, the employed can’t get to work. Hardworking jeepney and tricycle drivers are on street corners, begging.  

And don’t forget the millions of children whose learning may depend on computers they can buy only if they and their families don’t eat.

LGUs distributed cash and relief goods and at least in March and April compassion was high and many volunteered PPEs, food, shelter, etc. to frontliners and the needy. With donor fatigue, however, all seems quiet now in that area. On the economic front, news has been mainly on bank lending programs, the trillions government has borrowed and directives to oligarchs that they’d better improve or else.  

We have IATF but its work seems to be defining ECQ, MECQ, GCQ, and MGCQ. No one knows when a vaccine can be found and how much it would cost to vaccinate all 100 million of us. It would be nice if our betters were to define QV too: Quo VadisWhere are you going?”  Hope—a plan—is needed.

The haves are okay. They’re fine in their million-peso homes with home theaters and swimming pools. They continue to have family dinners with caviar and Alaska King crab. Their suppliers tout Hokkaido whole shell oysters (P71.43 each); cherries (PhP1,500/kilo) and exotica like almond flour, Callebaut Callets (whatever that is), Flechard unsalted butter compound, and USDA ribeye (P850/500 grams). On the other hand, the poor are grateful for rice, tuyô, and mongo when someone remembers they exist.

The have-nots are not okay. Quarantined in cramped homes in crowded neighborhoods, theirs are jobs—janitor, driver, kasambahay, construction worker, gardener, clerk—that cannot be done from home. They cannot sit down before a computer and get paid. They need to commute—line up and ride in crowded jeepneys, LRT and buses—to their places of employment and work alongside and possibly infect their fellows and their bosses. For them social distancing is impossible. 

Living hand-to-mouth, they are also the most likely to have low resistance and underlying health problems, making them more vulnerable than higher earners. The likelihood of serious outcomes is highest among them.  Unfortunately they are also the least able to afford respirators and needed treatment.

I don’t know if we have anyone like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Asked about the poor, particularly Black Americans, he responded that as a demographic group, Black Americans’ jobs do not allow them to stay at home and that with poor living conditions and nutrition, there is a higher incidence of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other health issues among them, making them more vulnerable to Covid-19.  

The urgent challenge is to reach a fine balance between: (a) infections and death and (b) economic recovery without which there could civil unrest. Leaving all options open is fine, but that’s the same as having no plan.

Fauci’s recommendation is to focus and concentrate resources among those communities, so people can get tested more quickly, know the results promptly and get immediate access to needed health care. That sounds right for our own urban poor.

The urgent challenge is to reach a fine balance between: (a) infections and death and (b) economic recovery without which there could be desperation, civil unrest and death, too. Leaving all options open is fine, but that’s the same as having no plan.

Economics 11 tells us that GDP = C + I + G + (X-Y), i.e., gross domestic product consists of goods the country produces that are either:  (a) eaten or otherwise used up (“Consumption”), (b) intended to yield future benefits like equipment (“Investment”): (c) taken by government via taxes, etc. and used for current or capital projects (“Government”); or (f) exported (“X”).  Imports (“Y”) are deducted to eliminate double counting.  

Unemployment means low “C.”  “I” is likely to be poor due to reduced demand, fear of expropriation, red tape, changing rules. Companies leaving China, a big prospect, are going elsewhere probably thinking that relocating here is like leaping out of the fire and into the frying pan. Exports won’t rise with a worldwide slowdown. Oil imports are less but we can’t count on that to raise “(X-Y).”  Maintaining, not even increasing, domestic product therefore depends on “G” that is attainable with foreign borrowing.

Debt has to be repaid, so let us hope “G” employs Filipinos (not labor imports) and goes to areas that will raise productivity and debt repayment money, say irrigation and agriculture; power and water projects; reforestation; coral reef rehabilitation; protection and exploitation of resources in the West Philippine Sea and Benham Rise. Certainly not to election-oriented projects like basketball courts and welcome arches and neither to procurements like health-related P119 million worth of laptops.

Notes: (a) Quo Vadis is Latin for “Where are you going?” Peter asked this of Jesus who he met as he was fleeing Rome to avoid sure execution. Jesus answered, “To Rome, to be crucified again”; and (b) Google reveals that Callebaut Callets are Belgian chocolates.

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