A SONA for change

Published July 29, 2021, 12:08 AM

by Diwa C. Guinigundo


Diwa C. Guinigundo

By the dictates of the health protocols, the Batasan hall was half-empty. It was desolate. Upon his arrival by a chopper, President Duterte looked weak and disoriented, and was politely escorted through a brief military review. Inside the Batasan, the President received some leaders of Congress for a courtesy call. He proceeded to the joint session for the State of the Nation Address (SONA), his last.

This is the state of the nation.

Established democratic institutions like separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branches of the Republic have somewhat blurred. It is difficult to expect independence in making laws, or in conducting fact-finding investigation in aid of legislation, knowing that the deck is stacked against forthrightness. That’s how we produced such unpopular pieces of legislation as the Anti-Terror Act that even community pantry organizers and Olympic gold medalist could be red-tagged.

We have 10 months to see how the Senate will stand up to any kind of pressure and deliver on Senate President Sotto’s assurance at the opening of the third regular session: “We will continuously seek to expose corruption in public service and direct the search light of one of our committees towards the dark corners of our bureaucracy where corruption and injustice thrive unnoticed.” The May 2022 election will afford us the opportunity to do our own assessment.

This is the state of the nation.

There is some disconnect in the upper crust of leadership.

Whilethe Senate Presidentassured the civil society of its determination to flush out corruption, the President in his SONA hours later declared: “You cannot stop corruption. Nobody can stop corruption unless you overturn the government completely.”

The President admitted in his last SONA his contempt for drug traffickers who he said would destroy the country’s young people. Against these drug traffickers, the President insinuated that he might have resorted to what he called “shortcuts” and was sceptic at doing it the legal way because “it would take you months and years” to do it.

We all know some Philippine senators have opposed this extrajudicial way of fighting drugs and promoting peace in the neighborhood.

The President seemed correct in comparing the number of deaths under extrajudicial circumstances with those who died of drugs and drugs-related crimes against persons and properties. But we thought electing public officials is all about establishing order within the ambit of the Constitution, our legal framework and democratic institutions?

The trade-off between human rights and human life can always be challenged. With moral leadership and good governance in law enforcement, perhaps human life can be protected without violating human rights. Time can never justify those shortcuts.

This is the state of the nation.

Many of those over 16 million Filipinos who voted the President to the Palace must have shared his vision of a better life for Filipinos five years ago. But the President admitted he promised only fundamental changes that could be counted in one’s fingers: free education, universal health care system, war against drugs and infrastructure. They appear to be entrenched now and except for the first two, the last two remain battles in progress.

Important laws were also passed during this administration including a series of tax reforms, BSP charter amendments, procurement law, among others. Building on the legacies of his predecessors, the President could also claim investment ratings were achieved during his watch.

For this, President Duterte recognized the hard work of his economic managers and the whole-of-government approach in crafting public policy on preparing to “leapfrog into the company of the world’s growing economies until the COVID-19 pandemic stalled everything.”

That is the rub.

Those economic gains were simply dissipated by badhealthgovernance.Instead of acceding to widespread clamor to fire his health authorities, the President retained them. He owned up to their negligenceand incompetence.

As a result, lockdowns were unavoidable. They were the only viable option because granular measures require some science. It’s difficult to admit that despite the large budgetary allocation, donations of vaccines and unprecedented borrowings, we still lag behind the other countries in the region in taming the pandemic and nursing the economy to recovery.

The President acknowledged the importance of overcoming the “crippling fear, anxiety and uncertainty that was caused by the threat of the COVID-19 virus,”but he could only ask in the last few pages of SONA:

“Saan tayo pupunta?”

This is the state of the nation.

It was a tentative spirit that propped upPresident Duterte’s bravado in discussing how to get the economy moving again.

Betraying his own catch-up game in his last 11 months, the President spent only three of his 26-page SONA discussing his plan for economic recovery. The plan is somewhat strategic because it calls for establishment of some government departments and a center for infectious diseases and even amendments to some economic laws. But these are initiatives that make sense when one is just starting his journey of leadership, not at the finish line.

The situation today continues to need concrete plans to manage the pandemic through expeditious means and details in handling the new variants. Timelines are important so that health issues will no longer be a big handicap to reviving business activities, inspiring animal spirits and restoring hope.

It was the President’s last SONA. He aspired for a full recovery in a post-pandemic world but his vision lacked focus.

This is the state of the nation. It demands change.