[OPINION] A national unity government to combat the coronavirus

Tony La Viña
[OPINION] A national unity government to combat the coronavirus
'If we do not unite, many of us will die and there might be no country left to fight over'

The following is Part 2 in a two-part series. You can read Part 1 here.

Social distancing cannot be enforced coercively. It requires education and persuasion. It requires people to have trust and confidence in their government. It requires assurance that the government will take care of the people who follow its directives. 

In short, social distancing can only succeed if there is social capital. 

That is a big challenge for a society that is so unequal and one that is bitterly divided along partisan lines. 

Prioritizing the poor

In a way, what is happening now in Metro Manila is neither a lockdown nor a community quarantine. It is, instead, an attempt to get the middle class and the rich to distance themselves from each other and from the poor. (READ: Luzon lockdown: What are the do’s and don’ts?)

For sure, the rich and the middle class have heard enough, know what to do, and can fend for themselves. They can work and worship from home, and teach and study online.

However, the poor do not have many options. They still have to work. They still have to commute. They still have to live in homes shared with 10-20 people, in “loobans” with hundreds of shanties in the same 100-200-square-meter area. The poor will not be able to do a lot of social distancing. Our less privileged neighbors will be ravaged by the coronavirus. 

The government should focus all its attention and resources on the poor. Non-coercive interventions – the establishment of support mechanisms – should be directed to help the poor cope with the economics of the community quarantine, and to assist them in doing social distancing.

While I support the temporary closure of non-essential establishments, such a closure must be accompanied by economic support measures for affected employees and small businesses. Among others, the proposal of Senator Risa Hontiveros to provide P10,000 as immediate relief for affected workers is a good start. This amount, however, is clearly not enough, as this lockdown is likely to continue for months.

Militaristic approach is wrong

This is why I have strong reservations about a militaristic approach to implementing the community quarantine and curfew in Metro Manila. It will divert resources from the real challenge – helping the poor survive the days, weeks, and months ahead. (READ: [OPINION] Solusyong medikal, hindi aksyong militar)

The police and military can be better utilized as a complement to healthcare providers trying to detect cases of the virus. The police and military can help in the dissemination of relevant information about the virus, especially in vulnerable sectors like the depressed areas of Metro Manila. They can also help in the disinfection of places and the distribution of relief goods to indigent families.

The government must provide for the poor. Otherwise, starvation will terrorize the poor more than the virus will. In desperation, if they cannot feed their families, crime will become attractive.

The pandemic is primarily a public health emergency and not a security problem. It is but logical that the police and military, without neglecting their main duties, must take a more proactive role in helping out in this emergency.  

A national unity government

The coronavirus presents our greatest challenge since World War II, when the Japanese invaded and occupied our islands and cities. There was no escape from the war, and now there is no escape from the virus; one cannot choose to ignore it. It’s like Lawin, Yolanda, Sendong, Ondoy, Reming, Milenyo, and other disasters for those caught geographically in the middle. But this one threatens all our islands, and it is not a one-day event.

Unlike the Japanese occupation, however, this is not a war and cannot be fought with arms or brute force. It has to be fought with science, discipline, cooperation, and national unity.

Unless we are united as a people, we will not defeat this enemy. 

Except for their enactment of curfews, I am glad that the mayors of Metro Manila are totally engaged in this fight. I have been watching Mayors Joy Belmonte of Quezon City, Abby Binay of Makati, Vico Sotto of Pasig, Francis Zamora of San Juan, and Isko Moreno of Manila – and these young leaders give me confidence. 

But there is much work to do at the national level so we can achieve unity.

Personally, I will support the Duterte government in its community quarantine strategy. As I have written in this article, that strategy can succeed not through coercion or through a militaristic approach, but by assisting the poor.

I put my full support behind Health Secretary Francisco Duque and all our health workers. Secretary Duque, whom I know professionally, might have made mistakes early in this fight, but he is still the best Filipino to lead us to victory against the coronavirus. His experience as Philhealth head, health secretary in the Arroyo and Duterte governments, and Chair of the Civil Service Commission will serve him and us well in addressing this complex challenge.

I was also relieved to see Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles take the lead in coordinating the actions related to the enhanced quarantine for Luzon. Sec Nograles is competent, serious, and decent. He will do well in this task.

Recognizing the extraordinary circumstances we are facing, I call on President Duterte to take radical steps for national reconciliation. Order the release of Senator Leila de Lima and other political prisoners aligned with the Left. Change course in the war against drugs. Reach out to journalists and media organizations it has attacked. Accelerate the peace process with the communists with whom an immediate ceasefire should be agreed with.

The coronavirus is an existential threat to all of us. If we do not unite, many of us will die and there might be no country left to fight over. A national unity government gives us a fighting chance. – Rappler.com

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