[ANALYSIS] Is the PH ‘healing as one’ from the pandemic? Far from it
After two months under lockdown, the Duterte government has placed Metro Manila under modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ), thus partially reopening it.
The rationale is clear enough. If we don’t reopen the economy soon, millions will suffer – becoming jobless, losing their livelihoods, or going hungry. Already, in the first quarter of 2020, the economy shrank for the first time in 22 years. Job losses are expected to range from 5 to 10 million.
On the other hand, a full reopening could usher in a second wave of infections and deaths (or, as Health Secretary Francisco Duque III inexplicably imagines it, a “third wave”).
To pull off this delicate balancing act, government must intervene like it never did before by, say, subsidizing widespread testing and handing out more emergency aid for households and businesses.
But at the rate they’re testing and handing out economic relief, millions of Filipinos might as well be left to their own devices.
No mass testing
Despite strong public demand, government remains bafflingly reluctant to implement mass or widespread testing.
By their own targets, they’re already lagging behind. At first they aimed to do 8,000 tests a day by end of April, but they only managed to reach that mark by mid-May. Now, government can do about 11,000 tests a day, and they plan to ramp it up to 30,000 by end of May (and even to 50,000 in two months).
But, according to Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, government will be relying on the private sector to boost the country’s testing capacity. The Department of Health (DOH) also said testing won’t be mandatory for asymptomatic workers returning to work.
Such statements feel like government is reneging on its responsibilities.
First, the pandemic behooves government to subsidize test kits for the private sector. These tests confer on society large benefits, which private firms may not necessarily want or be able to pay for.
Some companies, like Ayala Land and the Aboitiz group, say they’ll be testing their employees regularly. But most other firms – especially micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) – will be hard put to do the same.
“MSMEs [can] hardly afford to keep their employees, much less do these tests which are very, very costly,” said the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Second, government is reportedly procuring about a million PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test kits, alongside two million rapid (antibody-based) test kits.
Congress is also coming up with a new law – the Philippine Economic Stimulus Act (PESA) – which aims to provide P20 billion worth of test kits for the government and the private sector, with the end in view of testing each of 20 million Filipinos at least twice.
But medical groups have warned that rapid tests – if relied upon as basis for people’s return to work – will be a “waste of resources” since they’ll “perform poorly among asymptomatics.”
PCR tests are really the way to go, but they’re quite costly: each kit costs around P8,150, and scaling up testing will easily cost hundreds of billions of pesos and strain our government’s fiscal resources.
In fact, there are ways to minimize the costs of PCR tests.
Economists at the University of the Philippines, when they analyzed sectors that can be opened up soonest, suggested “sample-based random testing,” where only a fraction of employees in a firm needs to be tested. PCR tests can also be economized further by “pooling” the swab samples of employees.
All in all, universal testing was never the aim to begin with, and its impossibility shouldn’t excuse government’s continuing failure to conduct widespread testing.
Lacking financial aid
Apart from testing, government also seems to be holding back its aid for Filipinos, especially for workers whose jobs have been put at risk.
As of May 19, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) managed to hand out its first tranche of emergency subsidies to 96.3% of 18 million target beneficiary households.
But note that they originally aimed to complete the first tranche by end of April. We’re almost done with May now, yet DSWD has yet to begin the second tranche.
Owing to logistical nightmares, government sought to slash the ranks of beneficiaries – limiting them to households in areas under stringent lockdown. But later they took this back and decided to go in the other direction and expand the next list of beneficiaries to 23 million households (becoming closer to temporary universal basic income).
The intent is laudable, but this expansion will be useless unless snags in distribution are soon resolved. (READ: Duterte’s coronavirus aid: Too little, too slow, too politicized)
Due to sloppy targeting, for example, many poor households complained they didn’t receive any aid – even if most of their neighbors did. Persons with disability also felt they’ve largely been left out by LGUs in the cash distribution.
Meanwhile, some officials’ public statements reinforce the notion that government is scrimping on aid.
For instance, Senator Cynthia Villar recently assailed the need for emergency subsidies for the middle class, assuming they have jobs anyway and therefore need less help than the poor.
Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said that if a worker refuses to go to work because his company can’t provide transportation arrangements, “it doesn’t reflect well on his character. [He] should have [a] positive mindset. Otherwise he also runs the risk of losing his job.”
Finally, the Department of Labor and Employment left businesses and their employees to negotiate between themselves cuts in wages and benefits over the next half year – essentially banking on employers’ “charity and benevolence.”
Rather than withhold aid for the middle class, government should be the first to advocate their needs and look for sources of assistance.
Rather than put the blame on workers’ characters and mindsets, government should offer viable transport options.
Rather than leave workers – especially those with little to no bargaining power – at the mercy of their employers, government must readily subsidize their wages.
In the pandemic, the Duterte government enjoins all Filipinos to “heal as one.”
But almost 4 months since the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the Philippines, big swathes of our population are still being left behind. They are not getting the COVID-19 tests and financial aid they desperately need. Often the Duterte government seems to be holding back on its programs rather than going all out.
In stark contrast to the deficiencies of the Executive, Congress is drawing up a comprehensive economic relief package worth P568 billion that will include, among others, P110 billion in wage subsidies, P30 billion in temporary jobs for displaced workers, and P40 billion in loan guarantees for small firms.
Impressive though this spending package seems, it is in fact already overdue. The longer it takes for government to hand out more aid, the more Filipinos will lose their jobs and businesses, become sick, or die.
Some groups will inevitably end up healing more than others. Others still might not heal at all. – Rappler.com
The author is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations. Follow JC on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ (usapangecon.com).