Public health and economy in the balance

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

Last week, the country breached the 60,000-mark in the number of COVID-19 cases, second only to Indonesia which ranked first among countries in Southeast Asia. Localized infections persist despite weeks of community quarantine orders. These lockdowns, nonetheless, have greatly affected the economy and have led to the worst downturn in 30 years.

Experts from the University of the Philippines project that, based on current trends, infections may reach up to 85,000 at the end of this month.

On the eve of July 15, the government announced that NCR would remain under GCQ, instead of reverting to modified enhanced community quarantine, based on the agreement with local chief executives that they would intensify the lockdown, along with testing, tracing, and treatment measures and the enforcement of quarantine restrictions. This was in line with the implementation of the second phase of the so-called National Action Plan to address the pandemic, as implemented by the National Task Force Against COVID-19.

With nearly P9 trillion in total debt load as of May 2020, the government is planning to borrow up to 50 percent of its current GDP, up from 39 percent at the end of 2019.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III is positive that the country has the capacity to borrow and pay for these loans in the future. In his pre-State of the Nation Address presentation, Dominguez mentioned that “when the government can access debt at low cost, so will our private enterprises in need of assistance. The ability to refinance at lower cost will help us bounce back more quickly and more sustainably.”

In preparation for next year, the government is seeking a record P4.3 trillion ($86.83 billion) budget focused on reviving the country’s economy, which is expected to shrink for the first time in two decades due to the current crisis. As presented in the last joint oversight committee hearing on the Universal Health Care (UHC) Act, the Department of Health’s proposed budget for 2021 is around P182 billion. A huge chunk of this amount will be allocated for the implementation of the UHC (P53.2 billion) and health system resilience for emerging infectious diseases (P20.89 billion). Around P35 billion will go to the implementation of other health laws (e.g., anti-cancer, HIV and AIDS, first 1,000 days, etc.).

In that same hearing, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III mentioned that “battling the COVID-19 pandemic has demanded much from the health system and not only revealed its faults but emphasized an urgent need to transform and heal the system as a whole.”

The administration has been facing sharp criticism for its delayed response in the early stages of the pandemic, due to President Duterte’s political accommodation of China and his early statements downplaying the severity of the outbreak. In fact, according to a recent Social Weather Stations survey, six out of 10 respondents believe China did not immediately share its information on COVID-19 to the world. And among those who believe, 77 percent agree that China should be held accountable for not immediately sharing information about the coronavirus.

Dealing with this pandemic is a global challenge. While many countries are still struggling to flatten the curve as cases continue to rise, several have also successfully controlled its spread.

Managing the crisis at the national level depends on the country’s capacity to respond and control the virus. Until such time a cure or a vaccine has been developed, we need to plan and strategize on how to cope with the new normal. In turn, government officials should possess the vision for new strategies and how these will be implemented. Working in unison with different stakeholders should be considered to maximize all available resources and efforts. In the end, we need to accept that the true enemy in this crisis is none other than the novel coronavirus.

We cannot wait until this pandemic is completely over in order to revive the economy. With public health and the economy in the balance, the way forward is for the government to utilize next year’s budget to reform the country’s health care system, strengthen social protection, and provide the much-needed enabling regulatory environment for businesses to recover their footing, along with essential transparency and accountability measures.




This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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