(OPINION) Surviving the Pandemic: Response of govt's all over the world has been disproportionate

Edmund Tayao

Posted at May 24 2020 01:48 AM | Updated as of May 24 2020 01:58 AM

Second of a Series

When a crisis strikes, especially one that is unprecedented, we can only rely on governments. The government is the biggest institution in any country; it is the one with most resources and the only one that has (supposedly) the monopoly of violence. It’s a pity that very few governments managed to contain the contagion and act effectively. Those that we thought would be able to handle it well seemed to be just like all the others--generally surprised by the amplitude of the pandemic.

Instead of taking time to determine the extent of the crisis as soon as it was reported and learn more about the virus, many leaders were disappointingly dismissive. All over the world, from lack of information to outright hubris, leaders dismissed Covid 19 as just another virus. “It’s going to disappear,” said U.S. President Donald Trump. His neighbor, Mexico’s President Andres Obrador, popularly know as AMLO encouraged the people to go to fiestas, eat in restaurants and go out shopping. In Italy, politicians went out of their way to shake people’s hands to show that there was nothing to be afraid of and that everything should be as it is.

There are even governments that many thought would do right forthwith like Canada and it did. Prime Minister Trudeau announced sweeping steps to contain the virus promptly but some of the provinces didn’t see the crisis in the same way. Ontario’s leaders didn’t see the need for a lockdown. It was the business establishments that eventually decided to close voluntarily as Covid 19 cases steadily increased. These countries and states where leaders didn't’ act decisively, like Ontario along with Quebec in Canada, ended being hardest hit by the pandemic. 

There are mixed accounts in the Philippines. There are those who argue that the government did not close the borders in time and declare a lockdown. There are those who emphasize that we secured the country earlier than many other countries. We did, in fact, ban travel to and from China, including its administrative regions Hong Kong and Macau, well ahead of the others, on February 2. The World Health Organization (WHO) did not necessarily agree with the ban then, perhaps one of the main references of the Department of Health (DOH), that the reports quote Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO Representative in the Philippines saying that it would “cause more social and economic disruption and (are) less effective as a means of controlling outbreaks”. Interestingly, in the same news report, Dr. Abeyasinghe also admitted the Philippines’ early ban on travel to China may have been effective in containing the early outbreak.

The point, however, is that any and all action responding to the crisis had to be thought of carefully. It is not that easy to just decide to close borders based from where you sit, that is because of the fear of getting infected yourself and your family. In the first place, even if you are able to avoid infection as you closed your borders instantly, if there was not much thought how a lockdown can be effectively managed, it can lead to more problems. And that is where many countries found themselves lacking, including us.

No country or government could claim preparedness or arose prepared to deal with the pandemic. Even those hit by the SARS pandemic almost 2 decades back still had to grapple with what could be the effective way to deal with the contagion. The only proven solution, as the vaccine has yet to be developed, is the difficult option to control the movement of people, the closing of borders and putting communities on quarantine. This approach has already taken its toll that the global economy is now in a virtual standstill.

Overnight, supply chains were disrupted. There must have been a serious effort on the part of the government to address this but up to this writing, it remains a problem. There is clamor to continue and extend the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), but there are those who are already sounding the alarm on the impact of a continued lockdown on the country’s economy. There was simply a cacophony of voices in government that prevented a more effective response; it may be immediate but some measures could have been better.

Well-meaning or not, government officials who make the crucial decisions have to get their acts together. There is no one who can claim expertise and therefore authority in dealing with this pandemic that differences in opinion have become pronounced in governments around the world. This has been detrimental that in our particular case, the President had to let go of an official, a key Cabinet member decided to quit at the height of this pandemic. There was also a need to appoint a different czar for the crisis other than the health secretary.

Admittedly, the economic strain is just remarkable as it was startlingly unexpected. From Italy to the U.S., China, Indonesia and the Philippines, governments all over had to retrofit hospitals in order to accommodate more patients. Good for China that in 10 days, they were able to construct huge new hospitals to increase bed capacity immediately. But not all countries have that option as resources are strained considerably. In the first place, government resources are as considerable only as the country’s economy. Especially in an economy at a standstill, having enough resources would be plain and simple Godsend. What makes it even more complicated is that the whole world is in the same situation. International assistance is simply harder to come by unlike in previous crisis situations. Each country has to fend for itself.

If there’s anything that was put on display in all of these is that the current political and governmental system requires substantial reforms. Before we get into this however, we have to be very careful, as we have seen efforts to supposedly introduce reforms only to be wasted as some interests are revealed. What is made manifest, however, is that there is so much more to be had in terms of cooperation and coordination between the national and local governments. We only have to look at how the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) has been formulated and implemented. We could have learned significantly from the shortcomings of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) but no, in the end, it was just expected; there was finger pointing as to who or what level of government should have been doing what. Much of the problems we have now could have been resolved if the national and local governments worked seamlessly as a team.

Just look at the fundamental question of testing. There has been clamor for mass testing at the very outset. There was this claim that there is no country that actually did mass testing and only target testing. Whether mass or target testing, we could have already done it by now. The resources needed are not as tremendous as the SAP or any economic rescue package that should be in the pipeline. But no, we are still sadly debating whether to do whatever kind of testing there should be. Meanwhile, some local government units (LGUs) are already doing it. They may not be as effective, but they're doing it just the same and making significant inroads. Imagine if the national government worked with or, at the very least, assisted and supported LGU efforts to undertake this testing.

National governments that insist on working in a centralized framework have been proven to be inadequate time and again, even in an emergency situation like this pandemic. Federal governments that expected too much from states and local governments, on the other hand, revealed how it results to ineffective measures. In the end, there has to be a way to structure a government that will avoid the limitations of centralized governance, and absence of restraint in a federal government. The bottom line is that our current political and governance system is significantly wanting.

In the third installment, we’ll be talking about the Political Economy of Healing. It is an attempt to look at the key considerations before we take serious thought moving forward.

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