Bernardo M. Villegas
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How Can We Lick COVID-19? (Part 1)

          Most Filipinos with access to Viber and similar social media channels must have been impressed with the very efficient ways China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore addressed the COVID-19 challenge.  I am sure many of us still have very vivid images of the very articulate lady Foreign Minister of South Korea explaining in such clear terms how transparency and close monitoring of the most vulnerable  individuals paid high dividends to South Korea  that was able to “flatten the curve” in record time.  Who would have not been impressed with that documentary demonstrating the way the Chinese Government mobilised all human and physical resources to bring back normalcy to the region which was the epicentre of the Corona virus, despite some initial lack of transparency of the Wuhan local government.  And to most of us,  it was no surprise to hear the Prime Minister of Singapore report on how quick was their response to containing the spread of the virus, despite the fact that at the very beginning the Lion State had the highest per capita figure of infected individuals.  It is heartening to see  South Korea and Taiwan, for example, generously sharing masks and other much needed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) with other countries still struggling to flatten the curve, even among the more developed countries like the U.S., Italy and Spain.

         It would be the height of wishful thinking, however, for any Filipino to think we can replicate the success stories of these  East Asian economies.  Over the last thirty to fifty years, these  countries have built the necessary man-made institutions that lead to inclusive and sustainable growth, using the language of the book “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.  With some help from their common confucian culture. these countries were fortunate enough to have had leaders who were able to remove the extractive institutions erected by  the elite in failed societies like ours.  “Extractive”  institutions in the language of Acemoglu and Robinson are those which the elite erect to prevent a more equitable distribution of income and wealth, such as monopolistic and corrupt practices that divert funds away from the most needy members of society.  The opposite of extractive is inclusive.  Although we have gone a long way from the martial law years of the last century to lessen the influence of the self-centred elite on  policy making, we still are struggling to build an efficient state bureaucracy at the national and local levels and to muster the citizenry to always think of the common good in their individual behaviour.  For different historical reasons, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore have the fortunate combination of a relatively effective State and  a  disciplined citizenry.  It does not mean, however, that we cannot use whatever limited  resources and imperfect institutions we already have to also lick the pandemic problem.

         As in other efforts to promote the common good of the Filipino people, such as eradicating mass poverty, the Philippine approach has always been necessarily trilateral.  First there is the completely indispensable role of the State, no matter how ineffective or corrupt it might be.  The State has to guarantee the rule of law and provide public services which profit-oriented organisations cannot and will not provide such as basic education and health services for the masses.  There are also the public works such as farm-to-market roads, irrigation systems, post-harvest facilities, and other services that the small farmers need and which cannot be privatized through Public-Private Partnership (PPP) schemes.  Our unfortunate experience is that even in providing these most basic services to the public, our Government has fallen short of expectations.  Lack of strong leadership, inefficient bureaucracy and corruption have blunted or even completely frustrated the attainment of the common good of society.  To  compensate for the failure of the State, there has been a tremendous mushrooming of civil society organisations that address the nutritional, educational, health and other welfare needs of the underprivileged.  The Philippines excels in the number of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and philantropic associations  that try to make up for the inadequacies of the State.  Finally, there is the business sector, inspired especially by the Christian concept of the corporal works of mercy, that undertakes myriad “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) activities to contribute to the solution of some of the problems of society.  In looking for a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to rely on all these three sectors working together and not expect the State to come out with solutions that are as effective and dramatic  as  those of China, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore. 

         First, let us assess how capable our Government has been in responding to the crisis brought about the pandemic.  It was dismaying to listen to the remarks of our President at the onset of the crisis.  He was dismissive of the problem, outright irresponsible in the use of language and incoherent.  Fortunately, there were enough sober-minded people in his Cabinet who eventually convinced him how serious the threat was.  We should be thankful that he eventually had the political will to declare not only a lock down for the whole of Luzon but a state of emergency for  the whole country that would permit him to mobilise all the human and financial resources necessary to  limit the damage of the pandemic.  With the law passed by Congress, theoretically, the President has all the wherewithals to allocate funds and people to contain the spread of the virus and eventually restore normalcy to the Philippine society.  Most importantly and this is a saving grace for an otherwise emotionally unstable  leader, he is sincerely interested in alleviating the plight of the Philippine poor.  His declaring a state of emergency was strongly motivated by his concern for the serious collateral damage of the enhanced community quarantine on the hundreds of thousands of workers who would be laid off from work and would have no income to support their families.  The emergency powers would provide the necessary budgets that can subsidize the income-less poor during the lock down.  There is still, however, the nagging question of whether or not a significant amount of the funds meant for the poor would be lost to corruption.  This is where civil society organizations specialised in uncovering and prosecuting corrupt public officials have a very important role.

         Without belabouring further  the inadequacies of political leadership in  our country, it was dismaying to witness public officials sacrificing the  common good for their selfish interests  by demanding preferential treatment to being tested for the Corona virus even if they and their entire household were asymptomatic, depriving the common people of the same service, some of whom actually expired because they were not tested on time.  Even worse, some public officials were the first ones to violate protocols about how to behave when under observation or investigation, endangering the lives of others, especially very scarce medical personnel.  These  violators would have been punished severely in China, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore!

           There is also the misalignment between the national and local government officials in the implementation of the enhance community quarantine order.  This is another manifestation of a dysfunctional state.  With some outstanding exceptions of proactive and cooperative Mayors (like Mayor Vico Sotto of Pasig City), there have been serious obstacles put up by LGU units to the free flow of food and other basic necessities that are crucial to the survival of the population during the lock down.  Let me quote from one of the concerned agribusiness entrepreneurs, Carlos Cabochon, President of the Philippine Consumer Centric Traders Association: “Our daily challenge is making food and non-food grocery available to all our consumers.  The difficulty we face is the varying requirements set by LGUs and barangays as to passage through checkpoints of retail and wholesale workers and manufacturers/suppliers’ deliveries, including the movement of their own workers…The Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) of the national government has released advisories on the unhampered movement of workers in our industry and of all types of cargoes subject to COVID-19 infection protocols.  Yet,  local rules are set and delay stock replenishment.  I appeal to all Local Government Units and Barangays to follow the guidelines set by the national government on movement of food retail and wholesale workers and cargo deliveries.  We have common objectives and our role is  to make food easily available and in a way that that still limits movement of our public so as to comply with stay at home and social distancing requirements to arrest the spread of COVID-19.”  Not only have some LGU units placed obstacles to the free flow of basic necessities.  Many of them have been conspicuously absent when they were most needed by their constituents.  This explains the proliferation of popular protests reflected in such songs as “Meyor, Kelan Ka Darating” composed by some local musicians to the tune of a Paul Anka’s  ditty entitled “Oh, Carol”, as sung by Neil Sedaka.     To be continued.