As we marked last September 15 our sixth month under a government-imposed lockdown, the media reported that the Palace gave itself a grade of 85 percent for its handling of the pandemic. It was the equivalent of a “very good” grade, said the Palace, with government’s testing policies touted as “the best in Asia.”
At around the same time the Palace was patting itself on the back, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) released the results of a region-wide survey. It showed that Philippine households were the worst affected by the pandemic among Southeast Asian countries.
The ADB said 84 percent of Philippine households reported declines in their income. Indonesia came second at 81 percent while Myanmar ranked third at 78 percent. The Philippines also had the worst unemployment figure in the region with 73.5 percent. The average for the other ASEAN countries, according to ADB, was 44 percent.
An ADB analyst attributed the findings to the “very counter-productive” measures like lockdowns imposed by governments. Targetted and granular approaches would have given local economies room to breathe. A more pointed observation was given by internationally recognized economist Jeffrey Sachs. Speaking before a virtual conference attended by local business leaders and economic experts, Sachs minced no words when he said the Philippines lacked “serious and rational” governance.
“If we were rational and well-governed, we would actually find a way through this without massive pain and suffering. The epidemic, for example, is itself controllable through rational policies,” Sachs said.
He proceeded to remind his audience that with the exception of the Philippines and Indonesia, the rest of Southeast Asia – as well as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea – has succeeded in placing the pandemic essentially under control. What is shared by these countries, he emphasized, were “very serious public health efforts” to control the pandemic.
Sadly, some senior officials appear to be more determined to wave away these experiences and their tangible results. They would rather pursue policies that further burden the people without denting the health impact of the pandemic.
Take for example the recent decision of the Department of Transportation (DOTr) to reduce the physical distance between passengers inside public utility vehicles (PUVs). They adopted this policy without the benefit of review by health officials and the approval of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF). It goes against international standards and common sense. It was learned that the unilateral decision came at the alleged behest of transportation companies. The policy had to be rescinded pending review. It was no different from the decision to require married couples riding motorcycles to be separated by a divider. This inane policy was imposed without consulting engineers or motoring experts.
Then there is the issue of consistency. While the public is sternly reminded to wear masks in public and observe physical distancing, implementation remains inconsistent. A woman was accosted and fined by authorities for not wearing a face mask while washing clothes within her private property. Yet there were no law enforcement personnel present during the opening of the “white sand” beach on Roxas Boulevard. All cemeteries were ordered closed on November 1 to deter mass gatherings on the traditional day of honoring the departed. Yet government officials themselves encouraged the public to leave their homes and “appreciate” the cosmetic facelift project at the bay.
And they did come by the hundreds.
Six months since the lockdown, we have yet to achieve a flattening of the curve. As of this writing, the number of confirmed cases has exceeded 280,000 and there are no signs that the infection rate is easing.
The economy has contracted by 16.5 percent in the second quarter, and the country has been plunged into its first recession in almost 30 years. Millions are now out of work and are hungry. All projections show poverty worsening in the next few years.
These are hard and brutal realities that will not magically disappear with self-indulgent praises.
The prognosis and the solutions proffered by Sachs, the ADB, and other economic and policy experts are not novel and untested approaches. They are the results of careful readings of the approaches taken by Asian governments in order to control the pandemic in their respective countries. The economies of most of Asia are slowly recovering. They offer lessons and templates for our leaders and key government officials tasked to oversee the pandemic response. Their individual practices shine a light on problems and situations whose solutions have eluded government thus far.