by Aurora Roxas-Lim*
14 June 2020
There are many lessons to learn from the turmoil brought about by the COVID19 pandemic.
The virulence and rapidity of the spread of this pandemic affect all social classes from all countries of the world. Wuhan City in Hubei Province of China, the origin of the virus, took drastic measures by cordoning off the city in late December 2019, then the entire province.
Subsequently, the national government ordered lockdown of other provinces and restricted local and international travel. At the same time the Chinese government mobilized all health and support agencies to care for hundreds of thousands victims.
When the virus struck our country, our government took similar measures from March to June 2020. Imposition of strict lockdown, ordering people to stay at home, prohibition of travel while intended to prevent the spread of the virus, caused tremendous havoc to the economy.
The hardest hit by lockdowns and stay at home order are the poor.
The order is such an irony for thousands of Metro Manila residents are homeless. Many live in squatter areas with no potable water and sanitation facilities. Likewise, the stay at home order caused hardships to daily wage earners, street vendors, tricycle drivers, laborers, jeepney drivers, servitors etc.
Not until August 12, 2019 did House Committee Chairman on Metro Manila Development Congressman Manuel Luis Lopez realize that of the 14 million residents in the National Capital region, at least 494,630 are poor. The numbers will increase with the implementation of the National Identification project. Our government realizing the dire effects of its health measures has been providing relief goods and sums money to alleviate the suffering of the poor.
Fortunately, many wealthier sectors of our society, individuals and corporations donate food, health care and medical supplies. But these are all short-term emergency measures.
The social-economic consequences of COVID19 pandemic brought to light the long neglected festering problems of our country. There has been great wealth generated since the 1990’s and our GDP growth has been 6% during the last decade.
However our country’s Gini Coefficient that measures social-economic iniquity remains quite high at – 0.475. This means wealth is more and more concentrated in the hands of the fewer wealthy individuals and families. Our economic policy of free enterprise allows the wealthy to invest in whatever enterprises that will bring them greater profit at the shortest possible time.
Hence, the wealthy take over mainly public lands (often in connivance with politicians) and put up shopping malls, expensive subdivisions, hotels, condominiums, cemeteries, casinos, resorts, etc. But rarely do they build affordable, safe, durable sanitary housing for the poor.
Exacerbating the lack of low-cost housing is that our government has not done enough to generate employment at home that guarantees enough wages so that when people are too old to work they can draw from their savings and pension. Corollary to job generation at home is putting up educational training system to raise skills of workers and food producers.
The pandemic also put to the spotlight the vital importance of people who clean up our environment – garbage collectors, sewage cleaners, janitors, hospital orderlies whose work should be mechanized, they should be equipped with protective gear and paid just compensation like the system that is practiced in Germany. Our health workers – doctors, nurses, dentists, therapists and care givers especially in public hospitals and clinics are mostly over worked and under paid. Hence many go abroad. Instead of nurturing native industries and manufacturing that produce high value high tech products we export labor.
Overseas Filipino Workers number between 5 to 10 million whose remittances (hover between $2.5 to $10 billion) help shore up our economy. Our country focuses on attracting Foreign Direct Investments (FDI). Our country is one of the most hospitable venues to Foreign Direct Investments (FDI). We provide land, roads, transportation facilities and utilities (electricity, water) and compliant skilled labor plus favorable taxation. Greater attention is given to to FDI, Business Processing Operations (BPO), franchising (mainly US fast food chains) and exporting labor.
Yet, we have not taken determined efforts to boost food production that requires large investments over long period of time. So we import rice from Thailand and Vietnam. Our farmers and fisherfolk are the poorest sectors of our society. Poverty incidence nationwide was 38.8% in 2006 and dropped in 2020 but still 19.8% or 23.1 million Filipinos are poor.
Food production should be mobilized in larger scale, which requires large capital investment over long period of time. This also requires land reform in order to consolidate the often 3 to 5 hectares of scattered fields, mechanize operations together with improved less costly irrigation and flood control measures, lower farm imputs – seeds and fertilizers, provide post-harvest, processing, ware housing facilities, transportation and marketing. This also entails organizing food production cooperatives and collectives that will be responsible for maintaining machinery, irrigation facilities and payment of loans. The Balik Probinsya (Return to the Province) Program being undertaken by our government is meant to decongest Metro Manila.
Hopefully, the project will also encourage putting up barangay and municipal economic enterprises suitable for the ecological conditions of the area like aquaculture in coastal areas, agri-forestry in mountainous forest areas, food processing, waste recycling, waste management and environmental protection. There is also a need to set up biomass facilities in the municipalities to recycle biodegradable waste. Our government should entice armed and violent rebel groups to participate in economic production.
Above all, it is paramount to eradicate or at least minimize corruption.
Our government, while attending to health care of victims of COVID19 pandemic needs to draw up immediately a comprehensive, coordinated social-economic recovery program to deal with the problems raised above. Let us appeal to our wealthy capitalists to undertake not only economic activities for personal corporate profit but for the social good.
*The author was former Dean at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines and a former President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) where currently sits as a member of the Board of Advisers. She is currently teaching at the Ateneo de Manila University.
This piece was also published in Eurasia Review.
Photo by Capacity Media and Eurasia Review.