Is it time to move on?
The resiliency myth

June 29, 2022

by Janna Remigio

The Philippines ranks 49th among 53 countries in the recently released Bloomberg’s COVID resilience ranking, making the country one of the five worst places to be as the ripples of COVID-19 continue.

This is contrary to what the outgoing Duterte administration had repeatedly built as its narrative – that it did well on the pandemic and that it is leaving behind an economy that is on a quick rebound. The economic managers, in their recent joint statement, are also confidently saying that the Filipinos have “overcome the country’s greatest economic and health challenges.”

Why do our economic managers seem to fib incessantly about one of the worst COVID responses the world has seen, when some horrid images are not easy to forget?

The Duterte administration met the ingress of COVID-19 in 2020 with highly militarized, prolonged and stringent lockdowns. Pres. Duterte, it should be recalled, even gave a shoot-to-kill order for quarantine violators and protesters. Images of quarantine violators being locked up in dog cages and coffins, and being made to carry the latter, are difficult to unsee now as the Philippines continues to wobble on the pandemic and the economic crisis. The Commission on Human Rights for instance is still probing specific cases of authority atrocities where Darren Manaog Peñaredondo, when he went out to fetch water, was allegedly made to do strenuous physical exercise – to his death, and where Eduardo Geñoga, when he was out of the house beyond curfew hours, was allegedly shot and killed by a barangay tanod.

We may tend to forget about these horrible things, but what is difficult to deny now is that the militaristic and demagogic leadership approach to the pandemic along with all the anti-science means of the Duterte administration have left ugly scars on our socioeconomic life.

It is not as though we were not already headed towards a bad place before the pandemic. We were getting there due to unrepentant neoliberal policymaking, but we definitely plunged into an even worse place during the pandemic and now as Duterte turns over the reins of government.

When the scars are still fresh

Using 11 indicators, Bloomberg ranked the country among the worst in terms of lockdown severity, flight capacity, travel routes, vaccine doses per 100 population, 3-month case fatality rate, coverage of universal health care such as prevention and treatment, and access to education, among others.

For instance, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines recorded dramatic declines in aircraft, passenger and cargo movements: from 266 million in 2019, down to 124 million in 2020, and still, even worse at 5.3 million movements in 2021. And for an economy that depends so much on overseas work, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) also reported a decrease in the deployment of overseas contract workers, from 2.1 million in 2019 to 1.7 million in 2020.

Stringent lockdowns hurt the informal workers and small businesses the most, which unfortunately also make up the majority of workers and establishments in the National Capital Region and nearby regions. The number of unemployed rose to an unprecedented 8.2 million in 2020, based on IBON’s estimates. It is easy to blame the pandemic, but the economy was already on a three-year slowdown in 2016-2019 and production sectors were already shrinking. The annual number of jobs created in the last six years under the Duterte administration is lowest of all administrations post-Marcos dictatorship. Harsh and unscientific lockdowns affect the informal workers who continue to make up 7 of the 10 employed.

The PSA reported that there were 138,843 small establishments that closed permanently in 2020-2021, affecting 565,446 working people. The reduction in the number of micro, small and medium enterprises was close to 80%, according to a survey of the United Nations Development Programme.

The numbers of hungry and poor families increased in 2021, despite the already limiting government definition and low official thresholds. Some 3 million families lost their savings, adding to the 18.4 million families with no savings to begin with. Still, the Duterte administration had been unrelenting on providing substantial economic relief and stimulus. Instead, at the height of the pandemic it provided tax cuts to corporations and the rich, and now leaves behind a huge debt, with very little of it going to COVID response.

The Philippines is among 10 countries that are slowest in vaccination based on the Bloomberg’s ranking. After two full years of the pandemic, the Duterte administration was still targeting full vaccination of 70% of the population (around 77 million) for herd immunity by February 2022. Yet, only around 64% of the population are fully vaccinated. The World Health Organization (WHO) has assessed the levels of protection against all variants of concern including Omicron and recommended booster doses. But as of June 2022, the Philippine health department has reported only about 15 million administered booster doses, or only 21% of those who are reportedly fully vaccinated.

The Philippines is the only country color-coded worse in terms of share of COVID-19 deaths in the number of cases over the past three months, therefore ranking 53rd in this aspect. About 14% of the people diagnosed with COVID slipped through the fingers of the healthcare system. The Duterte administration allocates only 3.7% for health in 2022, and this meager allocation does not allow for a strong and equitable healthcare system that can seize health crises with both hands.

Already two years of the pandemic and several mutants, the Philippine government remains adamant that mass testing is needed. Diagnostic testing is a critical component to the overall prevention and control strategy for COVID-19, and as the WHO Director-General has said, “The most effective way to get – and keep – ahead of COVID-19 is to keep testing.” The same goes for other curbing measures, such as sound contact tracing, isolation and quarantining, but the Duterte presidency had faltered in all these.

Despite the Duterte government’s claim of having made universal health care a reality, (false as it is since the law it falsely claims to have initiated has flaws itself), the country still ranks 48th in terms of universal health care.

When memory doesn’t fail

Indeed, we were all hit by the pandemic. But official responses have been varied, and we unfortunately have had the worst. Looking even beyond the Bloomberg ranking, the Philippines turns out to be the worst economic performer in Southeast Asia, the slowest to recover, with the highest unemployment, 2nd highest inflation rate, and 3rd highest government deficit as percent of the gross domestic product.

The Duterte administration is turning over a Php12.1 trillion national government debt to the next administration, which at this early is already mulling over higher and additional taxes on the consumption of the poor while continuing to relieve the corporations and the rich of income and wealth taxes. The 2023 budget is also the start of austerity budgets, since its growth of only 4.9% from the 2022 budget is the smallest increase in two decades.

Why are we being told then by government officials and economic managers that we are on our way to recovery? Why do we keep on hearing, like a broken record, that we are resilient as a people? Looking at facts presented, it appears that repeating these narratives is mind and attitude conditioning so that we do not hold leaders accountable for our worsened condition. 

It’s like when horrific things happened to us in the past, and we are told to forget and move on.

But myths fail when the memory doesn’t.