Keep safe and pray

Published February 24, 2021, 12:37 PM

by Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay

GOVERNANCE MATTERS

Former Vice President Jejomar Binay

Most observers have attributed the unprecedented rise in hunger and poverty to the administration’s monumental failure to respond quickly to the threat of COVID-19 and its reliance on strict lockdowns that grounded the economy for months. Ironically, the administration is now citing hunger and poverty as its key arguments in justifying its proposal to loosen restrictions imposed in Metro Manila and other key localities.

The national leadership, however, has rejected  the proposal, which would have taken effect on March 1. It is a correct course of action.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and local health experts have warned that a sudden relaxation of restrictions could lead to a surge in cases that may again burden the health system.

Where are we now? The number of infections continues to hover at around 2,000 new cases a day, the fatality rate is increasing, and new variants of the virus have been found here. Add to this the fact that until now, despite the much-hyped dry runs or rehearsals, the government has yet to start its vaccination program or even secure solid commitments from vaccine manufacturers.

The counsel from health experts is for a gradual re-opening, or allowing local governments to decide on the level of quarantine restrictions based on their assessment of conditions in their localities. What is needed, according to Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, the WHO’s country representative, is a “careful balancing” of health and economic concerns.

If there is one thing that the present dispensation is not accustomed to or known for, it is the practice of “careful balancing.” It will bluster or bully its way out of a tight spot, but it cannot display adeptness in managing with efficiency, purpose, focus, and common sense.

Economic managers claim that easing restrictions would “mitigate sickness, hunger, poverty, job and income loss that are arising from non-COVID-19 cases.” This is misleading. It conveniently leaves out one key factor in reviving the economy: cash aid or any form of economic relief for millions of jobless Filipinos which the government will not provide.

Our economy is consumption-driven. This is why economic managers are pushing for the early re-opening of shopping malls, restaurants, stores, cinemas, and other commercial establishments. People need to start spending again. There is just one problem with this thinking: people do not have money to spend.

Some experts have been proposing that government should provide cash aid so people can start spending but apparently, our leaders would rather spend on big-ticket infrastructure projects and counter-insurgency presented as development programs.

For the economic team, people should go to work and get salaries. But this ignores another fact: thousands of companies – many of them Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) – have been forced to shut down. Even if you remove restrictions on movement by putting more vehicles on the road, millions of Filipinos have no jobs to return to.

The ideal scenario is for government to re-open the economy alongside an infusion of economic relief and the vaccination of front liners and priority sectors. But the vaccines are still not here. The arrival dates, unveiled with much fanfare, are just moveable targets. But they raise hopes so high that it leads to a false sense of security.

One explanation given for the delay is that richer countries have cornered the vaccines at the expense of poor countries like ours. But this assertion has been disproven by reports that countries considered poorer than us have already started vaccinating citizens.

Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Cambodia are among these countries. They may be poorer, but obviously they are more efficient and adept at handling the crisis and making the welfare of their people as a priority.

The handling – or mishandling – of vaccine procurement joins the long list of examples of poor management during this pandemic. These unforgiveable shortcomings in governance cannot be obscured by bluster, misdirection or choreographed events for the benefit of media. One does not govern a country, or address a crippling pandemic, with staged events and spin.

Loosening restrictions on mobility and economic activity, while failing to secure even a single dose of vaccine and improving public health, is a risky move, especially for an administration not known for efficiency or common sense. We can only pray for our nation and keep ourselves safe.

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