OPINION: Uncharted waters in the age of COVID-19

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Mar 19 2020 04:10 PM

“Succession of ‘scripted’ shows of support” for President Duterte is surging in Social Media.  That’s how another writer describes how supporters of the President have been expressing support because of the chief executive’s “calamitous” TV appearance.  Well, after four years of President Duterte, hearing him in countless speeches and press conferences, I have to say every one of which is “calamitous” for those who have been used to hearing a President speak fluent English, that is without the Visayan intonation and idiosyncrasy of consistent adlibs, personal stories, curses and jokes. As to the substance of that TV appearance, on the other hand, and even the substance of many other press conferences of the President, I think it served the purpose, at least if one really will hear and understand him.

COVID-19 is a pandemic.  That pronouncement is enough to suggest a crisis that is most severe.  There may be some way, however minimal, a possible preparation is for a typhoon, but to a pandemic?  How may civilizations before had to grapple with a pandemic and succeeded with ease?  With the available technology now, disaster preparedness has been common in government and even in households.  The disaster that is referred in this regard however includes typhoons, flooding, fire, and earthquake.  I don’t know of a disaster risk reduction management (DRRM) plan or exercise that includes a pandemic, unless I am wrong.

In social media, for example, you’ll see pictures of crowds and traffic in checkpoints as authorities control the flow of people in and out of a locality as part of the measures recently put in place to stem the tide of this dreaded virus.  These pictures are cropped and arranged along with pictures of more developed countries, e.g. Japan, Italy and Switzerland.  True enough, one will see how orderly things are in other countries compared to ours.  Perhaps we forgot to note that it’s easier to contain the flow of people in these countries because they share one thing in common, one that we still want to put in place, that is, mass transport system.

Are other countries more prepared than us in responding to this crisis?  The answer is yes, but only because they have more resources at their disposal to adjust accordingly.  Are they better equipped because they managed to anticipate and therefore plan accordingly before the crisis?  The answer is no.  Obviously, it is a pandemic, everyone including the World Health Organization (WHO) had been able to offer information about the virus only little by little as they themselves are still trying to make sense of the disease.  How can one plan enough if there is so little information that is available?

If there is anything that is visibly a limitation of government, it is the system of public administration.  Imagine if decentralization had been successfully put in place since the enactment of the 1991 Local Government Code (LGC), we could have a better managed and coordinated devolved critical services in this time of crisis.  The LGC devolved health, agriculture, social welfare, public works and tourism.  If, at least, health, social welfare and agriculture are functional at the local level, responding to this crisis should be easier.  But no, everything has to happen from the center and controlled at the top.

If local economies were developed enough to function even with limited access to internal and external trade, we would not have problems with food and medical supplies, enough to keep the country and its economy working.  As it is right now, the financial capital is the national capital region (NCR) while everything that is and could be produced, necessary for one’s day-to-day existence are all in the provinces, if not imported.  Imagine if there is no such dichotomy, that the NCR and the provinces and/or regions each has the financial resources and is able to produce, at the very least, able to supply basic goods with ease.  Even with a (God forbid) prolonged lockdown, everything should be normal.

If only local government units (LGUs) are well aware who their residents are, managing the flow of people should be effortless.  I worked with a province down south years back as we collaborated in putting up a sophisticated system of community-based monitoring system (CBMS).  Not all of this province’s municipalities managed to put the whole system in place but a good number and cluster of these LGUs are easily able to determine who their residents are, where they are, their ages and circumstances.  In fact, the same is true in another island province in the south.  They know right away if there are lawless elements present in their midst.

Unfortunately, there are but a handful of these LGUs and so much still depends on the center, that even the containment of people travelling unnecessarily in this time of crisis has to be undertaken by the national government, specifically by lawmen who are not necessarily familiar with the area where they are assigned.  Of course, we have the dedicated career men and women of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) assigned at every nook and cranny of the country, as always, for sure they will be very useful in this time of need, but they can only do so much.  Without the LGUs really able to sustain themselves, managing the crisis, especially this bizarre and unprecedented proportion, will really prove to be overwhelming.

One political leader who had experience in the local and national government sat down with us in a meeting when the President was about to give his initial public broadcast regarding the lockdown of NCR.  He succinctly described the situation as some “stress test” of our politics and governance.  It is an indictment of the current system’s capacity and limitations.  We can start by asking ourselves, if this is a crisis situation, what are the available legal-constitutional tools expressly provided in the 1987 constitution that we could use?  I can already imagine the oppositors raising hell with this question.  If only to assuage true feelings of anxiety, we need to ask because precisely the declaration of Martial Law is out of the question.  We are not dealing with armed rebellion.  So there’s really a need to ask the question.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.