About midway into the lockdown era, word got out that one form of real estate at a premium, even with the economy at a standstill, was warehouses. Banks, for one, were snapping them up, because a massive wave of defaults on car loans was ongoing, and the banks quickly needed places to park all their repossessed vehicles. At the same time, the Pogo (Philippine offshore gaming operators) phenomenon began evaporating, and while in the boom years properties had been snapped up with cold, hard cash one to two years in advance in full, now property owners have to be contemplating a wasteland of empty office and residential units with few takers.
There was basically a first wave of business closures in the aftermath of the first few months of the lockdown. This was followed by a second wave of business closures, as a result of spending to ramp up operations but only for everything to be abruptly shut down during the second lockdown. There may be a third, depending on how the holiday season goes, though some may not even have made it this far because of mandates such as 13th month pay.
And yet it was the private sector, I am convinced, that essentially advanced relief for society as government slowly geared up to deliver relief. It was an outpouring—out of a combination of altruism and self-preservation—of assistance not just to employees but also impoverished communities that prevented a social implosion. Government did its part by providing not a lot, but enough, wide enough but not to all, to stave off mass starvation and social unrest. The threat of force did the rest.
Back when John Nery and I co-wrote a blog experiment called Inquirer Current, I wrote an entry on our national coping mechanisms. I referred to the recollections of people who found their world turned upside down by World War II and survived by means of the buy-and-sell system in which the formerly wealthy systematically sold their possessions even as dubious characters made instant fortunes in the black market. One little-noticed but fortunately reported phenomenon that accompanied the lockdown was an explosion in the barter trade by means of social media. Buy-and-sell, too, the dynamics of which—essentially, the informal economy—are so familiar to us, became formalized in a sense, through online shopping portals like Lazada and Shopee.
After I wrote my Inquirer Current entry, I started to reflect on whether our wartime generation’s survival instincts hadn’t been honed by the experience of disruption that was the Philippine Revolution against Spain and the Filipino-American War. In a similar manner, I recall stories of families in a panic during the urban fighting accompanying the RAM coup attempts in the late 1980s, and how more often than not, the only calm person would be a grandparent who’d lived through the war. And I had to think: It must have been their knowledge and instincts that carried families through a few years earlier in the early 1980s, when the economy collapsed under Marcos.
It seems so long ago when social media erupted in indignation over reports by media and ordinary citizens alike about panic-buying as the lockdown was set to begin. In the end, the hoarders were proven right, as the lockdown dragged on and domestic and global supply chains ended up disrupted on a scale last experienced during World War II. We call them plantitos and plantitas, accompanied by a black market in forest plunder, but this latter-day mania of urbanites goes beyond decorative plants and includes quite a lot of foodstuff production—an older generation might have called them Victory Gardens.
And as the warehouses bulging with repossessed cars show, it’s the aspirational middle class that is hardest hit, as it lacks the reserves to wait out an economic reversal but has become one or more steps removed from the subsistence existence of the poor (who get relief). The moderating of ambition by settling for government jobs suddenly becomes, once again, a tried-and-tested—because risk-averse—career path. It may pay late, but it pays (government, that is), while even white-collar workers in big conglomerates, anecdotally at least, complained of COVID-19 sweeping through their cramped quarters as they reported for work during the pandemic.
If we are surprisingly in less bad shape than we should be, it could be because the 1980s and 1990s benefited from the memories of those who, in the 1940s, had learned, in turn, from those who’d been around in the 1890s.