A guest contribution by Alvin Mejia
In a series of articles, the Wuppertal Institute would like to provide an insight into the challenges that some of the developing countries in which the Institute is active face in the context of the Corona pandemic. This article outlines the situation in the Philippines.
Resilience is a key characteristic that Filipinos normally associate themselves with, something that has been forged into the Filipino spirit, as we have lived in lands that are naturally prone to calamities and disasters - typhoons, volcanoes, earthquakes, sea level rise, storm surges and floods. Name it, we have it. The communal stress being put by the corona pandemic, though, is something that has never been experienced by the nation, whose risks and vulnerabilities to the pandemic are intertwined with its other challenges.
The first confirmed case of the corona virus in the Philippines was recorded on January 30, 2020. The first death was reported on February 2, involving a Chinese native who had travelled from China to the Philippines. This was also the first confirmed death from the virus outside of China. After an almost month-long absence of reported cases, evidence of local transmissions popped up in early March, including cases involving people with no travel history. President Duterte announced a state of public health emergency on the 9th of March. As of April 28th, 7,958 cases have been tallied, with 530 deaths.
The placement of the country in a public health emergency enabled the Department of Health to mobilize resources for the procurement of medical equipment and the imposition of preventive quarantine measures. On March 12th, Metro Manila was put into a partial lockdown, followed by the placement of the whole of Luzon Island on “enhanced community quarantine” on March 16th. A day later, the President declared the whole country under a state of calamity. The lockdown has then been extended to April 30th, but according to recent news, it is most likely that it will be extended at least towards the middle of May. The community quarantine announcements have triggered instantaneous next-day migrations, as people working in the Metro wanted to go back to their home provinces.
The Bayanihan Heal as One Act that realigns a significant portion of the 2020 national budget (63%) to respond to the current pandemic was also signed into law last Mar 25t.h. Such an act embodying emergency measures was deemed to be necessary in order to give the country a fighting chance against the virus. The Philippines, like many developing nations, is not well equipped to handle such a pandemic. Such adaptive capacity (or lack thereof) is reflected by the level of magnitude of the tests being conducted. The ratio of tests conducted per a million inhabitants, as of April 27th is at 867, placing the Philippines at 130th place out of 163 countries with available data. In comparison, Germany has a ratio of 24,738. The government has been striving to increase the testing capacity in the country, with several testing laboratories currently being set up and accredited.
In terms of economy, the corona pandemic has, and will continue to impact the Philippines in a significant manner. National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) stated that the national unemployment rate could go up to double-digits due to the pandemic, from a historical low of 5.1% in 2019. The Philippines is also relying heavily on the remittances from the Filipinos working outside of the country (“overseas Filipino workers” or OFWs), which accounts for roughly 10% of the GDP. Given the global situation, it is expected that many OFWs would be losing their jobs, and such can further contribute to the down spiral of the economy. Towards the end of 2019, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) projected a 6.2% year-on-year economic growth in 2020. It has recently revised this outlook to just 2%, corresponding to a measly 0.6% per capita GDP growth. The aggressive efforts to control the pandemic is also expected to have a toll on the fiscal position of the country. The NEDA is expecting that the budget deficit will be at least 4.4 to 5.4% by the end of 2020. As supply chains have been severely disrupted (except for essential goods), we’d expect backlash in both the production and consumption sides of the economic equation. Moreover, if the situation does not dramatically improve soon, social unrest may worsen, considering worsening supplies of food and basic necessities. The photo below was taken on April 17, 2020, with a man holding a placard stating “We have only been rationed with rice two time in 1 month. Please have mercy, we need help, we are very hungry.” While it has recently been announced (April 27th), that quarantine restrictions are to be relaxed, it would take time for the economy, and society, to bounce back.
Everyday Living During Corona
The corona pandemic, as in all parts of the globe, has disrupted the fabric of everyday life for most people. Understandably, movements are highly being limited, with only major essential destinations opened to the public. Mandatory quarantine passes have been issued nationwide (only one pass per household). Anyone caught outside without such passes faces hefty fines, or face an obscure punishment - depending on the mood of the local police - such as reading the bible, or bathing in the scorching tropical sun. Curfews are also in place, and no one is allowed to be outside from 5-8 pm (depending on the city) to 6 am.
Major public transportation services have been suspended starting March 17th, including jeepney, and tricycle paratransit services. This essentially leaves no easy viable options for those households without private vehicles, who now would rely on walking, or on government-provided transport services to do their tasks. In my locality, where informal pedicab drivers are allowed to continue to work, they earn as low as 1 Euro per day, and are not able to go home to their families.
In recent weeks, current quarantine measures have been tightened. Traversing from one city to another would now be prohibited. Many cities have also issued local ordinances which institute a coding system for the use of the quarantine passes, which essentially uses a number coding system to limit the use of such passes every other day. Such measures are deemed necessary to further reduce the density of people in marketplaces, and other major trip attraction points. The picture below (published on April 18) reflects the state of affairs in marketplaces in the country. In some areas, there are no other viable alternatives for getting essential supplies aside from the government “rolling stores” (essentially trucks that serve as stores and roam around to neighbourhoods). It’s not too bad for some, but if you live at the end of the route, there’s a high chance that some of the supplies are out when the store goes to you. Such scenes are also existent in some of the main government (national and local) offices, particularly those who are involved in the disbursements of emergency subsidies.
Finding the Positives Amidst the Crisis
The corona pandemic, while proving to be one of the most difficult challenges that the country has faced in recent history, is also highlighting several key positive notes which may not have been possible under “business-as-usual” situations. For example, the potential for utilizing alternative means of work arrangements (e.g. working remotely) for certain jobs is now being tested on a wide-scale basis. If such are embraced after the crises, these can have significant positive impacts towards decongesting urban thoroughfares and free up urban space in critical areas. The private, and non-government sectors, including loose groups formed by individuals, have also risen up to the challenge and have been cooperating with the government in multiple ways – provision of financial assistance, production of medical equipment, and using innovations to help out. For example, the City of Pasig and the Philippine Postal Corporation ( partners in the EU-supported SolutionsPLUS project wherein the Wuppertal Institute is also involved in), have deployed electric vehicles for the delivery of relief goods in the City. The whole pandemic crisis, on a certain level, has also emphasized the roles and importance of governments at different levels, as well as the importance of cooperation with other sectors towards bayanihan or community building.
The corona pandemic is unique in a way that it challenges the system as a whole, on a scale that has never been seen before. As with any developing country, it is dealing with other significant challenges amidst the pandemic. However, as much as the current situation is a significant challenge, it also poses significant opportunities for realizing change, towards the betterment of the whole.