An inclusive economy should help lift the burdens of the people, rewarding their labors and helping them meet their basic needs. It must help local entrepreneurs grow by providing them a climate that encourages them to innovate, improve, and compete with bigger, mostly foreign-owned enterprises. Those who are destitute must be extended government care, not as a form of charity, but an obligation, part of a social contract with all citizens to help them live in dignity.
Past administrations have all proclaimed that their economic programs aspire to meet these goals. Yet the pervasive poverty and inequality has unmasked these declarations as illusory. Despite indicators showing economic growth, poverty and unemployment remain high, especially in rural areas, the result of decades of neglect of the agriculture sector.
The administration, riding on the banner of populism when it came to power, promised to change all that. But the pandemic has exposed that it is taking the same economic path as its predecessors. Much worse, the pandemic showed the depth of the inefficiency, ineptitude, and lack of compassion in government today. The pandemic exposed a regime of poor governance and weak institutions, a management style that relies on quick fixes achieved through despotic and iron-fisted means.
In a fit of candidness that perhaps can only come as a result of exasperation, the President declared last week that the economy is “sinking deeper and deeper” as a result on the pandemic. Earlier, the government released its 2020 economic figures showing the worst economic contraction since World War II. The finance secretary was quoted as reporting to the Cabinet that the economy loses P2 billion a day because of the pandemic in terms of money earned by workers. But we were reminded that we are not alone, since other countries are also experiencing economic difficulties.
That statement is partly correct. It is true that the pandemic has disrupted economies worldwide. But it is also true that other countries, including most of our regional neighbors, have already re-opened their economies. Indicators show modest recoveries for them starting this year. On the other hand, experts say the Philippines is lagging behind other countries in curbing the pandemic and may have one of the slowest economic recoveries.
All the other countries did one thing in common – they took immediate measures to curb the pandemic. They quickly shut down their borders, imposed granular lockdowns, conducted mass testings and contact tracing. They took the problem seriously. They gave citizens the information they needed and the comforting assurance of a government working to protect them from the virus.
Our government did the opposite. And now we are suffering as a result.
At this point, government needs to inspire confidence in the economy, to encourage people to begin spending again. That could take some time. But all that is needed is for that one major leap forward. Government is pinning its hopes that once it begins its vaccination program, tentatively set for the second quarter of this year, people would have the courage to step out of their homes and begin spending.
Such a scenario, however, rests on two things. First is that most Filipinos need to be convinced that the vaccines are safe. According to surveys, this distrust of vaccines can be attributed to the hysteria raised by the Dengvaxia controversy and reports of deaths in other countries.
The second is that government will not mishandle the vaccination program. This would seem like a tall order. Shortcomings and controversies in the execution of major governments programs have by now become routine.
This is where the road to recovery could hit its biggest roadblock. It should not be a surprise, therefore, that while our neighbors in Asia have started vaccinating their citizens and opening their countries to foreign travel, our government is still pre-occupied with the issue of face masks.