by Phylicia Abary
Image: Asian Development Bank / Flickr
In late January last year, the first active case of COVID-19 in the Philippines was confirmed. More than a year has passed since then, and yet the handling of the pandemic in the country remains as stagnant and subpar as it was in the first quarter of 2020.
Policies have been placed and lifted over and over again. Banner statements have been repeated by those who have broken the very regulations they themselves have set in place. All of these actions boil down to the question of: “Where is the Philippines currently in relation to the pandemic, and what does this mean looking forward?”
The government refuses to provide better policies in lieu of the outdated ones set in place. There is a blatant lack of transparency between the government and the masses. All of these indicate one sole truth: it is clear that quite a lot has yet to be done in order for the Philippines to claim that their response to the pandemic is anything but substandard.
It’s Been a Year: The Current Response of the Philippine Government to COVID-19
It is worthwhile to note that the Philippines has, in fact, created a response to the pandemic. However, all of the provided regulations have been set up far too late, and have not been wholly effective due to the ways in which they have been enforced.
One of the earliest responses formulated by the nation’s government was a lockdown. This was enforced in Metro Manila on the 15th of March last year, two months after the first case in the country was confirmed. Prior to this lockdown, the government refused to implement a strict travel ban on China. Needless to say, the citizens showed their displeasure with the government after the latter had cited how they were hesitant to place a travel ban in order to maintain a good relationship with China.
Social distancing measures have also been set in place, as well as the mandatory wearing of personal protective equipment (PPE). These measures did not conclusively show a decrease in COVID-19 cases, mostly due to how the enforcement of these rules were neither organized nor strict.
With all of these band-aid measures, the Philippines is now buried further into debt. All the government projects launched (including other projects and government assistance has been launched, such as the financial aid given to the lower class and small businesses, as well as repatriation efforts) as a COVID-19 response has brought the total amount to over 10 trillion PHP.
Despite the efforts made by the government, this response is not suitable to the crisis that the country is facing. What makes all of these elaborate projects so negligible in terms of effectiveness is that the lack of proper enforcement in even the most basic of policies. A slap to the face is further delivered when the government officials themselves are the first people who break them (read: Gov’t officials reminded to become COVID-19 protocols ‘role models’ after Roque seen in Cebu mass gathering).
Another factor as to why these efforts have not yielded their desired results is the dilatory rate at which they have been first established. Immediate response is required in order for a response in such a high-stakes issue, and yet the Philippine government has refused to do so ever since the first lockdown efforts back in March last year.
It’s 2021: The Philippine 2021 Budget and the Health and Education Sectors
The medical and educational sectors are arguably the two sectors most in need of attention in light of the pandemic.
The 2021 Philippinne national budget has been given. The biggest chunk goes to the education sector, with 751.7 billion PHP, or 16.7 % of the total budget.
Although the education sector is well-funded, it has not received the proper handling, care, and attention that it requires right now. Accessibility is one of the most difficult challenges the educational sector currently faces. Students from the lower class noticeably have difficulties in accessing and maintaining a steady remote education. The required technology as well as proper learning environments and infrastructures have already been an issue prior to the pandemic. Now, this problem has become even worse and has forced 2.6 million students in the country to dropout.
The medical sector on the other hand has received P287.47 billion PHP. It is the third department with the highest allotment from the 2021 budget, right after the infrastructure division. The latter gets almost three times the amount allocated for the medical sector, with a budget of 694.82 billion PHP.
The margin of difference between these two departments is questionable, as the medical sector has clearly been run to the ground due to the pandemic. Regardless of the Duterte administration’s focus on public infrastructure (read: “Build Build Build” Program Amid a Pandemic), one could only hope that the medical sector would be given the attention it requires during these trying times.
The government must be more transparent regarding what is actually happening. Quit making countless claims about the non-existent success that the country is supposedly experiencing in regards to COVID-19. Public morale must be kept high, but not through the means of omission.
Moving Forward: What Else Can Be Done?
Seeing how the Philippine government has responded to the pandemic so far, it is clear that revisions must be made regarding the regulations and protocols currently set in place. More than that, the enforcement of such regulations must be strict and uniform across all local government units.
The medical and education sectors must be prioritized, and the budget allocated to them must be spent solely for their efforts. These sectors are in most need of attention during these times. The deterioration of these departments indicates the imminent worsening of the country’s situation. Transparency reports must be given and made accessible to the public with a detailed explanation of what the noted proceedings are.
More than anything, Filipinos must go further than just following the lead of the government. This is, of course, if the central government decides to work together and lead the masses as they were elected into office for. It is high time that the country remembers that these people only have power as they were elected into office by the Filipino. The public must band together in order to face this pandemic. Filipinos are quite proud of their sense of ‘Bayanihan’, which is the spirit of togetherness, unity, and cooperation amongst the people of the Philippines. Now, more than ever before, must we exemplify the value of ‘Bayanihan’, or be doomed without it.