(OPINION) Surviving the pandemic: Moving forward, in search of a legacy 1

(OPINION) Surviving the pandemic: Moving forward, in search of a legacy

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Jul 20 2020 09:17 PM | Updated as of Jul 21 2020 09:55 AM

Fourth and Last of a Series

The President knew from the start what this country needs and what is the culprit of a problem why we have not been developing. So, this administration fitly started right smack at the heart of the country’s problems--the system. Most of the government projects are system-related: infrastructure; integrating social welfare, i.e. healthcare, education and even employment; ensuring the implementation of the agreement with the MILF and now ongoing; the rolling out of the landmark Mandanas ruling; rectifying the computation of the LGU share from national revenues. This is not a surprise considering that the President was a leading local chief executive for so many years and saw the transformation of the biggest city under his watch. In so doing, it’s impossible not to notice and see first-hand that the problem has to do with the prevailing system of politics and governance in the country.

Still, after 4 years, and especially with this pandemic, much remains to be done and frankly, the systemic reform many have been looking forward to seem to has been swamped, whether deliberately or not, by a combination of persistent problems of development and, of course, self-interest. We have noted in the previous articles in this series that the limitations of government have been made more pronounced recently--front, back and center.

And so some are saying, “been there, done that”. In fact, some would even tell us, “I told you so”. My answer to them is still the same: whoever will pursue systemic reform, regardless of background, political persuasion and or even idiosyncrasies, should be supported. Actually, the very reason why we are back to scathing partisanship, what we wrongly call "politicking," is precisely due to the prevailing irremediable systemic limitations. We are back to it with a vengeance, especially since many are now looking forward to 2022.

Introducing something revolutionary is bound to be rejected by well-entrenched interests. Just take a leaf from the universal health care and education. When it was proposed, almost instinctively, important members of the President’s team were indifferent, arguing that it will entail substantial cost. The long-term, more comprehensive impact that will accrue from such a stimulus public finance policy was not considered immediately. These reforms, however, appears to be populist and palliative, is actually far-reaching; but precisely the system somehow prevents whoever is making important decisions, to consider anything that departs from the norm. How much more difficult if you are pursuing really comprehensive political reforms like changing the system of government?

So, we have to ask what can and should be done moving forward, considering the constraints of limited time as the President winds down his term of office. Many of us still hope that political reforms can still be pursued. Much has already been said about it so perhaps we can talk about what can be done in conjunction. Basically, the theme is to enhance government capacity, which means maximizing what the government is capable of and therefore mitigate turfing. We have pointed this out in the previous article.

We have to reflect on the challenges we faced in this pandemic. These challenges are not necessarily due to the pandemic. In fact, if the government was organized in a way that it is not fragmented, we could have done a lot better. The problems we faced are problems that are best addressed at the local level. If local governments had adequate facilities for health, we could have done things a lot better, starting with determining the extent of the contagion at any given time.

We don’t even have to insist on mass-testing. If local governments had the capacity to determine, at the least, the near exact number of residents in each barangay, the background of each adult resident, i.e. work, educational attainment, in other words, complete demographic information, it should be easy to determine and control the extent of infection. This is basically the logic behind contact tracing, which, I have to say, we are doing wrongly. Note that contact tracing is supposed to allow the movement of people without the dangers of infection. The objective is to facilitate the movement of people, not to make movement difficult. This precisely is the heart of the debate between maintaining or putting community quarantine back in place or gradually and partially allowing people to move around.

I am sure many of us have been in a discussion with friends, especially those who tend to be more anxious, that people who have no urgent business going around should just remain at home. Maybe, but if we try to make sense of it more, the premise is quite untenable. Imagine opening up shops, e.g. malls, but preventing people to go around if they are not supposed to buy needed medicines or food. This is like banning shopping. If this is the case, business will remain basically on a standstill, businessmen won’t make profit, they won’t be able to afford keeping their people which ultimately will lead to closing the shops and people losing jobs.

We are already seeing so much of these happening. Many stores are on sale, discounts are more considerable compared to the usual periodic sale we had before in different stores and malls. This, of course, is supposed to entice buyers and therefore generate sales, but of course, not all stores can afford to offer such considerable discounts. It goes without saying that many will then just close shop and the economy suffers.

So, there is this thinking that it is okay for people to just remain at home as the government can afford to support their everyday needs. So, basically, given the idea that the government can keep on distributing money, businesses can and in fact should stop. Businesses should reopen and operate only when the pandemic stops and everyone can go back to how things were before.

I am sure many of those who thought that the government can just continue to give away money and that the big majority can just stay at home have a background in basic economics. Those who went through high school and college were taught basic economics. Regardless how much money the government distributes, if there won't be enough goods and services available to pay for, what do you think would be happen? It is, in fact, already happening as a result of the virtual standstill of the world’s economy.

I’m sure, as a result of all these, you have been reading and hearing both economic terms, inflation and deflation. We saw the former almost immediately after the lockdown. Prices of goods, especially basic goods, food and medicine, for example, soared. We don’t want to see, even imagine, this scenario getting worse and it’s good that somehow, prices of basic commodities are stabilizing. In other words, the government cannot just keep on giving away money without the economy continuing to work. If you are in government, it is not that easy to just decide that everyone should stay put and continue to just stay at home. There are some who have made it a point to just stay home, which is good. It is, however, no surprise that the bigger majority would likely be inclined to go out. I hope many can at least try and understand the bigger picture and not just insist on what they see from their purview.

Moving forward, there is no ignoring the need for the national government to work hand-in-hand with the local governments. Clearly, local government units (LGUs) can do a lot more in containing this contagion. The national government can and should continue to make policy and take care of the more comprehensive function of sustaining the economy. As has been mentioned in the foregoing, LGUs should have the capacity to know more of their people, which will then allow them to better provide healthcare and other needed services. Food and other supplies will always be a key concern and can only be addressed by both levels of government working closely and collaboratively.

We have discussed in the previous articles the limitations of the kind of economic framework we are currently employing, i.e. relying so much from imports and not trying as much to produce our own. Remember the debate not too long ago whether the government should actually support our farmers or just rely more on imports? Now we know the answer better after we had to face the threat of not getting enough rice from our neighbors. The same thing goes with basic medical equipment like face masks and other much-needed goods that clearly we can produce.

All these obviously can be addressed by the close collaboration of the national and local governments. The latter can very well help in the production and, in the process, supply their own people much- needed goods, while the former ensures and further develops the supply chain. The legacy of this administration can and should still be in systemic reform. Whatever it does, it should put in place the foundation and ensure the institutionalization of collaborative national and local governance.

There is so much more to be done. In the next coming articles, we shall deal with the specific challenges faced by the business sector, from business owners to employees, and even banking and the financial sector.

(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.