The Long View: Why we are where we are


Why we are where we are

To recap: the story of the handling of the pandemic by our authorities is the story of a gamble. The gamble was this: if you placed everyone under house arrest for as long as the economy could take it, it might prove long enough for the virus to either burn itself out with limited opportunities to spread, or for a cure to come around, or for infections to continue but in a kind of slow burn through the population, enough for us to limp along while economy reopened, and everyone hoped for a cure to come. There was another part to this gamble: that our society could take it, without urban insurrection flaring up, followed by anarchy in the provinces. This gamble reduced the number of variables with which the government would have had to contend: actually accomplishing contact tracing, or ramping up and sustaining testing, or doing the things that require government to be what it has never been: proficient at obtaining and interpreting data, or scaling logistics, in a timely fashion.

Government figured that if it essentially imposed martial law on the country, it could keep a lid on things, but the unease of government itself over whether this would work was only exceeded by the dread of the private sector. In the end, three things happened during the duration of the lockdown to stave off the uprising many logically expected (or feared). First, the private sector, whether big businesses, or SMEs or upper and middle class persons operating in informal or formal civic networks (as gated community groups, or alumni, even fandom, groups), rolled out relief, whether as corporate donations to areas, or wealthy enclaves sponsoring the care and feeding of their impoverished neighboring communities. Second, local governments, taking longer to rev up, did get into gear about the time the private sector was running out of resources, and delivered enough relief to enough of their constituents to keep communities from erupting. And third, it seems that the umbilical cord of so many Filipino families to their relatives abroad, was not as severely restricted by the global economic downturn as expected. The likely reason for this is that the countries where Filipinos abroad were situated went into stimulus-spending in a big way, which kept money circulating, which kept more income than expected flowing back home (though some sectors were devastated, such as workers on leisure and freight vessels).

When the economy was about to permanently flatline, the lockdown began to be lifted, but then followed what, again, in retrospect, were demonstrations of a government unsure of itself so that its armored fist trembled on at least two major occasions: the first was the decision, after lifting lockdown, to reimpose it, on the basis of pressure from the medical community. The problem with that lockdown was that it ignored what, to the medical community, was supposed to be the non-negotiable accompaniment to a re-imposition of the lockdown: going into contact tracing and testing in a big way. When government only did the lockdown part, the costs in public confidence and further economic disruption meant the medical community had lost its clout and government couldn’t risk a lockdown again. The second sign of weakness was letting the Feast of the Black Nazarene proceed, and turning a blind eye to the public living life almost like pre-pandemic days, on the occasion of the Valentine-Chinese New Year long weekend. I have seen discussions among people studying the statistics suggesting both ended up as “superspreader” events.

Add to this a colossal case of policy short-sightedness: the niggardly so as to be practically nonexistent “assistance” to businesses and the public from government, and its actual refusal to consider extending meaningful funding support to businesses and individuals — only the wealthiest local governments embarked on some sort of effort. The result is what we have.

Seeing discussions ongoing online and elsewhere, the consensus seems to be: we are on MECQ without the authorities actually declaring a return to MECQ, so that the authorities do not have to roll out cash and food assistance to the citizenry, because the government has no cash. And so this also means that businesses can continue to operate since there’s no other option because no cash assistance means everyone has to work. Children are, once again, fully under house arrest in Metro Manila; a curfew is in place again, liquor bans — the surest and truest signs that the authorities are worried — have been put in place in many component cities of NCR.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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