OPINION: Stress test in uncharted waters

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Mar 25 2020 11:07 PM

How far and how long can we go? As I have tried to make sense in my last piece, no one is prepared to handle this kind of situation. It’s not an excuse for whoever, certainly not for the government. If only we can have a sober deliberation of the issues. It is difficult to plan ahead for disasters. Yes, we already have what is called Disaster Risk Reduction Management (DRRM) but a pandemic, especially like this, is something that is simply beyond it.

There is no excuse however when there is so much more that can be had. Let us by all means listen to reason but ignore those pretending to have reason. No one is prepared as already pointed out but every day should be part of the learning curve. We have to assess, determine what’s lacking, and proceed the next day armed with the previous day’s learnings and so on. This is the most that can be done in the absence of a plan.

Foremost that requires assessment and immediate adjustment is the enforcement of quarantine measures. It seems it is something that everyone and anyone from the barangay to the supermarket and drugstore has his/her own interpretation and therefore enforcement. Moving around is made to be at the most minimum level, hence, allowing only one member of the household to go out and only when there’s a need to buy supplies. This then requires control of the flow of people and traffic and therefore the blocking of streets. This should not include national roads though. This has led to the now severe problem of supply. I thought it was only the National Capital Region that would be vulnerable to this problem but no, as it turns out, it is true all over. Any produce can hardly move from one area to another. Note reports of vegetables rotting in the La Trinidad that some are just being given away for free as the traders can’t get down and reach areas that expect their supply. There are reports from various seafaring towns where seafood are sold at a dirt-cheap prices again because there is hardly any possibility to bring their produce to the market.

And then there are those who are either opportunist or stupid (still hoping not both). Imagine requiring traders to pay for their pass just to move from one locality to another. This is happening even among those who were already given passes by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and even though no less than the President clarified in his press conference that the movement of goods will not be affected. The members of the IATF in the subsequent press conference they conducted further clarified this. Still, we have this problem. At first, facemasks became scarce and now absolutely none; then alcohol. Of course, that was well anticipated, but now basic goods and vitamins have become scarce. This is a fundamental issue, as more than the need for testing kits immediately, we have to make sure there is enough food to eat and supplements, as these are essential for prevention. Prevention after all is a lot better than cure, which is not even there yet.

How about local leaders who really have to be made to understand what it is exactly that they are supposed to do? In these times of crisis, there’s not much that differentiates the situation of the rich and the poor. The problem precisely is supply, that it has become irregular. So it’s not just a question of having money, it’s a question of having the goods available that money can buy. Add to that the availability of people who can buy the goods any household requires. With this situation in mind, only an oxymoron will ask his constituents who has the capacity to sustain the lockdown and who does not. To top it all, this local chief executive is even asking for donations from his constituents, and he even has the temerity to say they have to be honest if they really need rations or assistance from their local government. His interesting letter/leaflet to the constituents even has a breakdown of the cost of each product that will be in the bag that will be distributed.

You are in public service. Yes, to be honest, there are just so many asinine people, especially in social media who can get into one’s nerves. Then again you are to be able to distinguish legitimate concerns and should respond accordingly. You don’t say, you need not receive any assistance or enjoy the services of the local government if you disagree. Again, it’s not a choice. Everyone, regardless if they like you or not, voted for you or not, is entitled to public service.

While we can identify and should make accountable people who should be doing the right job, these issues point to the limitations of the system in place, if in the first place we can call it a system. If our political system is designed to identify and put to position more of those who are actually qualified, this could be avoided. If our public administration is so designed to work as an integrated and not fragmented way, yet empowered and responsible decentralized local authority, then we’ll probably have less of these problems. But we’re not. This is precisely why the current situation is a stress test and it’s already showing the limitations of the kind of governance we have. Again, there’s still something that could be done. Assess regularly and make the necessary adjustments accordingly.

We have cited so many, in my previous article, which local governments should have been able to do if only the fundamental tools were given priority ever since, starting with their community-based monitoring system (CBMS), especially if as much as possible spatially rendered. This confusing and inordinate quarantine system enforcement could have been a lot better. Targeting those who need assistance should also be easier. Now we know and perhaps after this contagion, it can be given priority by local government units (LGUs). Meanwhile, there is a need to act decisively.

So, we were right in asking what available legal-constitutional tools are provided for in the 1987 Constitution, which may be resorted to in order for the government to respond better. And we were right in assuming that martial law is out of the question. This is of course not my own wisdom as this has been a result of discussions with distinguished legal experts, and of course has been discussed in the Consultative Committee that drafted the only concrete model of Philippine Federal Government. It was expected, as it is needed that Congress granted needed emergency powers to the President in order to deal better with this crisis.

There were of course so many criticisms. Still we have to patiently explain to them why these powers requested from and granted by Congress are necessary. In the first place, it should be emphasized that these are actually not additional powers, only that it could only be exercised during crisis and not without Congress granting it. 

One favorite criticism is the power granted to the President to “direct the operations of any privately-owned hospitals and medical and health facilities INCLUDING PASSENGER VESSELS AND, other establishments”. This provision is the critic's favorite, scattered all over social media. If one is to read the whole Act Declaring the Existence of a National Emergency, or even only of the whole paragraph 4 of Section 4, then it will provide the right context. Interestingly, for example, this often-quoted portion always conveniently excludes the important provisos following the phrase.

We have to get our acts together. Not only those in government, not only our officials, but the whole country. I don’t know if it’s just globalization that the whole country now seems to be really the whole country. Not that we are fragmented, which we are, but more like those who have lost their mindset of what the country actually is, especially compared to other countries, are the ones who have the gall to criticize. That's ok and expected, but the bias is quite glaring and the basis of the criticism often empty.

Former countrymen, I hope you are able to understand the big difference between the country you were born to and the country where you chose to be. I could not say you have lost the right to criticize when you elected to swear allegiance to another country, but we are a people that everyone considers reasonable and hospitable. At least make an effort to really understand the issues, including the people involved and the reference of your criticism. I hope you’d be discerning enough that eventually it should lead you to realize that what you are actually criticizing are actually the ones you’re using as reference, only that they look and sound better. Now say, never mind all these, still I say, I hope you’ll make an effort to distinguish politics, that is, partisan politics, and politics that is policy-making. Then you'll be ready to comment and will certainly become part of the solution. Otherwise, just stick to what you're doing and let those whose job is what you think you know.

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

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