A devastating super-typhoon ravaged the country last week, narrowly sparing Metro Manila but leaving a wake of destruction in large parts of Bicol. Not only did it displace thousands of families, it also battered the region’s agricultural sector. There will definitely be economic costs.
For a country still battling the pandemic, further natural onslaughts such as this gives the economy a narrower window to recover. Hindsight being 20/20, it is always imperative to review where we were at the start of this pandemic, if we are to successfully find our path out in the foreseeable future.
Before the pandemic flattened the economy, we were posting robust figures, although still far from being inclusive. Early this year, when the COVID-19 virus forced China to close major cities, the health secretary downplayed its virulence. He even sought to portray the low number of infections being reported in January and February as proof that we were managing the virus better than other countries.
Senior government officials made light of the threats posed by the virus. At one point, they even chastised those who were calling for a ban on flights from China for being racist. It was only when the number of infections and deaths rose dramatically towards March that the government scrambled frantically to respond. It ordered a hard lockdown on Luzon, effectively shutting down the economy.
Eight months after, the economy is struggling to stay afloat. Millions are now out of work and have been driven to poverty. Government has been urging people to travel to tourist spots, even as the number of infections continues to rise daily.
Until now, we have not seen any visible and massive undertaking to step up mass testing and contact tracing, or upgrade the public health system’s capacity to deal with an upsurge in cases. One is already being predicted by a University of the Philippines (UP) Research Institute by December, when the holiday season could lull people into complacency. To think that we have not even seen a flattening of the curve. We are still undergoing a first wave.
Government drew from its fiscal reserves and realigned funds for Bayanihan 1 and 2, emergency measures designed to mitigate its impact on the population, particularly vulnerable sectors. Observers now consider the fund infusions inadequate, and the performance of government agencies in disbursing these emergency funds disappointing. It has been learned that billions in much-needed funds remain undisbursed by several departments.
The government’s impractical and prolonged lockdown has taken its toll, with obvious social costs. Yet government has been slow in acknowledging its lapses and instituting measures to correct the current course.
The 2021 budget, as I have discussed in previous columns, does not fully live up to its description as a budget to fight the pandemic and restart the economy. It is skewed heavily in the way of infrastructure, with its enticing possibilities for pork. It proposes a budget for fighting communism that is way higher than the budget for assisting distressed local companies and out-of-work Filipinos. It foregoes much needed financial aid for the poorest of the poor, and sets aside only P2 billion to purchase COVID vaccines. Even the Department of Health admitted the amount could barely cover their initial inoculation target.
The consensus is that the economy will remain flat well into the next year. Revenues are down, and half of next year’s budget will be funded by loans. But with the national elections set for 2022, politics seems to have overridden the larger imperative of fighting the pandemic and mitigating its impact.
It is difficult to imagine how the economy, already in a fragile state, can withstand the twin bludgeoning from the COVID-19 pandemic and a succession of typhoons expected until early next year.
The more important question is whether the country and our people can remain resilient in the face of pervasive pessimism, widespread anxiety, and aimless governance during this pandemic.
We need to pose the hard questions: Are we ready for a second wave? Have we learned our lessons?