(OPINION) Surviving the pandemic: The political economy of healing

Edmund Tayao

Posted at May 29 2020 11:27 PM

Third of a Series

As I have circumstantiated in my previous writings, this crisis is unprecedented; it’s unlike any disaster that any government can plan for and anticipate. The only way to attend to it (for lack of a better term) is only through trial and error. Governments and institutions can best deal with something no one knows enough only by learning more about it every step of the way. And that’s what governments should have been doing from day one of the pandemic.

So that’s how we have to proceed--we should assess. Every step of the way, we should assess and make adjustments as we deal with the everyday problems of the crisis. This is a fundamental measure, as we cannot reconfigure, as we adapt to the new situation and adopt new tools and approaches in order to formulate solutions. After almost three (3) months of lockdown, we should have had enough time to reflect on a lot of learnings. So far, there are so many indications that current practices have not been effective, if at all working, and therefore have to be modified. Perhaps, that’s the reason why recently, we adopted different classifications and types of community quarantines.

As has been seen all over the world, as we wait for the vaccine that will free everyone from the contagion, restarting should not and cannot mean going back to how things were before. And as we figure out needed and effective measures that will ultimately end this nightmare, going back to active life can only be done gradually. In the first place, whatever measures are determined to be necessary, all could only be entirely new and therefore untested. Patience is therefore imperative. That’s why we call it the “new normal”; we now have new practices and considerations that we have to adopt appropriate measures that cannot be done with the same dispatch as we do on things we are already familiar with.

Everything can and will likely change, and many will find it difficult to adjust and transition. Imagine how many conflicting interests have to be managed by authorities in order to come up with effective solutions. Imagine how many of these interests are in government. Some would immediately say, it’s because of the Filipino culture that there’s so much self-interest in government. Actually, everywhere you go, in any institution and in all circumstances where decisions, especially crucial ones to be undertaken, there will always be opposing views. No particular group or interest will get everything they want or prefer. There has to be a happy middle ground. Managing expectations and getting conflicting groups and their interests to support the solution is then the measure of governance.

Survival would require that we get the economy back running--and efficiently at that. This is precisely why it has been difficult to decide to just close down borders and quarantine communities. How will any country survive if it cannot fund its requirements? What will people do if they not only don’t have enough money to survive, but also have nothing productive to do? The limitations of our economy are what has been made more apparent by this pandemic.

If only we are able to produce much of our basic requirements, starting with food, it would have been a lot easier dealing with this crisis, or any crisis for that matter. With all that many of us had to go through with this pandemic, it is impossible to miss that it is fundamental to revisit our development strategy, defined for quite some time now by the “theory of comparative advantage”. The assumption is that because we can’t compete if we’ll produce what we can produce, we should instead concentrate on what we do best then import the rest. The point is that it is cheaper that way that we have become dependent significantly on imports. Right now, we don't produce much nor is there any incentive to develop industries that can produce anything of significance. 

Even research and technology, key drivers of growth of all successful economies, have not been given much attention. It's about time we go back to essentials, and revive and aggressively revitalize manufacturing and strengthen research and development of technology. We have seen how Filipino scientists and policy experts have performed not only in the country but also even in helping other countries. Look at how we have schooled many of our neighboring countries in planting rice, food production and even in government reorganization. For some reason, instead of leading rice and food production in the region, we have been buying most of our food from our neighbors. And while we have been effectively able to share our knowledge in governance, say for example in decentralization, many of the recent studies concede that the tables have been turned; we now have so much to learn from our erstwhile students. 

If only decentralization was put in place as it was intended. The law was passed in 1991 after so much debate and negotiations between different stakeholders but implementation has been remarkably wanting. After 30 years however, it is now clear it is nearly impossible to put it to work if we don’t do away with the existing government framework. Imagine how food production and manufacturing could flourish if most if not all of the regions are bustling with economic activity. Then we could take it to the next level, that is, agricultural industrialization. In time, we won’t have to depend so much on imports, that we have enough to sustain ourselves in times of crisis. Then there is every reason to support our farmers that it is popular again to go into farming and put to a stop the unbridled conversion of productive lands. The pandemic has shown how vulnerable we are; we might want to act and vigorously push for food security now before it’s too late.

Continue and vigorously pursue "Build, Build, Build" but ensure it coincides with a reliable, flexible and sturdy supply chain. It is right to push for the administration’s key priority of infrastructure development. This has been the country’s weakness ever since, not only in the lack of roads and bridges in the countryside but more so with a seriously decrepit and largely inadequate mass transit system that is mainly existing only in Metro Manila. The interconnection of all regions should be given priority, not only with more expressways but also with trains and developed nautical highways. All this building should also include post-harvest facilities, warehouses and depots; only then shall we have completed the needed backbone for real economic development.

By doing all these, that ultimately redound to the benefit of countryside development, many of our leaders would like see local governance differently. From one of contempt and indifference, to one of esteem and interest. Then the need for cooperation between the different levels of government can be better appreciated and that we can now address limitations in public administration.

The disagreements between national and local officials have been made more pronounced with this pandemic. Even if there’s actually no disagreement in terms of objective and even in strategy or solution, friction and opposition remained. If we are to look closely, the cause is not so much about capacity on the part of our officials but more because of turfing. No one wants to be seen as lesser than anyone, even if there’s a need to work with everyone. 

Consider the formulation and implementation of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP). Fingers were pointed everywhere as to who or what level of government is to be blamed. If the system promoted and ensured complementary work between the national and local governments, issues like this could have been avoided.
The sum of all these is we seriously should pursue long-term systemic reforms. Many are convinced the country’s problems are systemic. With this pandemic, the limitations of the government have been seen front, back and center. There has to be an inventory, review and revision of existing laws, and the bureaucracy should be reconfigured. It is not only our local governments that are fragmented, even our national government agencies are fragmented. Imagine creating more agencies just to address a particular issue like a Department of OFW and a Department of Water. As it is now, the government is already huge and continues to grow. The question however is if its growth has resulted to better performance.

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.