While few would dispute Secretary Carlos Dominguez’s latest assertion that sound macroeconomic management has enabled the country to weather the severe impact of the pandemic in 2020, there is widespread skepticism about the government’s ability to nurse the economy back to health in 2021.
Amid the renewed upsurge in COVID-19 infection in the NCR Plus bubble that is also the center of business and industrial activity, the government seems unable to come up with the right combination of measures that will balance both economic and health imperatives.
Just before the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) was imposed anew last March 29, Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua flagged in a Palace briefing that imposing stricter measures than the General Community Quarantine (GCQ) that was then in force would further exacerbate two main pain points: Hunger and unemployment.
He pointed out that around P700 million in salaries are lost per day under GCQ; moreover, the ranks of the unemployed would increase by 128,500 over the current 506,000. Citing a Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) Survey that around 3.2 million people are hungry, he said that 58.000 more would swell their ranks.
Expressing concern over these figures, Chua framed the dilemma: “The issue we face now is not economy vs. health. It is the total health of the people, whether from COVID, non-COVID sickness, or hunger.”
The Foundation for Economic Freedom, through its President Calixto Chikiamco, said that while the economic team has done its homework, the other key agencies of the government have not stepped up to the challenge. He cited three major weaknesses; failure to implement a proper testing, tracing and treatment strategy; the bad image created by senior officials publicly seen as violating health protocols, and failure to promptly secure vaccine supplies.
Evidently, those in the lowest economic strata are also bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s impact. Quite apart from lost jobs and increased hunger, the poorest families are also most seriously affected in two critical social services: Health and education.
According to a survey of low-income households conducted in December 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO), “the health system is strained under the challenge of management of COVID-19 cases which likely crowd out the delivery of essential health services.”
Moreover, it observed: “As of mid-February 2021, the country stands out as one of few countries which have banned all face-to-face classes since the start of the pandemic with no clear plans to resume them. With school closures and challenges in the delivery of distance learning, students’ learning losses are expected to be enormous.”
While senators and congressmen have been calling for the enactment of a Bayanihan 3 measure to provide additional economic stimulus and augment social safety nets, the government insists on continued fiscal restraint, while pointing to the “Build, Build, Build” program as its main anti-poverty program.
Effective governance and improved management of the health and learning crises spawned by the pandemic are urgently needed to ease the Filipinos’ pain points.