Partisan priorities in Sona 2020

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

The health crisis has worsened and COVID-19 community transmission has spread like wildfire, but the government continues to assure the public that everything is under control. As of July 30, the Philippines had already overtaken the 84,292 COVID-19 cases registered by China, after the Department of Health reported 89,374 positive cases in the country.

Yet, despite the uncertain future ahead of us, President Duterte’s fifth State of the Nation Address (Sona) last July 27 did not provide any clear direction to Congress and to the people on how the government intends to fight and win this pandemic.

The President said the fight against COVID-19 would be fought with the same fervor as the government’s campaign against illegal drugs, criminality, corruption in high places, and entrenched parochial interests. For the past four years, however, the Duterte administration has not been effective in breaking the vicious cycle of illegal drugs and crime and corruption. Affiliate problems have also not been solved or at least lessened to manageable levels, notwithstanding certain “milestones” in some areas.

Nonetheless, there were three legislative measures that were mentioned in the Sona to facilitate the recovery and response efforts of the government. These included the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises or CREATE Act, and the Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer or FIST Act.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis, and this should be the basis to realign our priorities, like shoring up and strengthening the health care system. It is not appropriate to apply band-aid solutions to national issues and pin our hopes on the notion that the “vaccine is just around the corner.”

While a lot has been said about local issues, the Sona kept silent about urgent national issues. The implementation of and necessary financing for the UHC Act and the National Integrated Cancer Control Act were barely mentioned.

And while the pandemic has exposed the weakness of our health care system, it has also underlined the superficiality of our social protection system. The poor and the more vulnerable sectors of society bore the brunt of harsh government lockdown measures, restricting and preventing them from earning a living. As jobs have evaporated and many companies have closed down, opportunities for daily wage earners have dwindled while their mobility remains severely restricted. Inequality in our society has only worsened, and the people’s sense of optimism is at historic lows.

If what we truly need to get across into the next or new normal is digital transformation, then the Sona could have delved into developing and upgrading our congested digital infrastructure. For instance, cloud-based services could be made available to cater to the demand for digitization and establish linkages between the ecosystems of government, private industries, and consumers. Such facility will also boost digitization efforts not only in health care provision and services but also in education. And two stumbling blocks need to be done away with to ensure a secure, stable, and fast digital infrastructure: 1) bureaucratic barriers that prevent the creation of sensible and balanced policy actions; and 2) the lack of necessary public investment, with critical private sector involvement.

With the administration’s partisan priorities and lack of comprehensive plan, the effects of the crisis may yet worsen in the coming months, stretching into the last two years of Mr. Duterte’s term. But the President cannot always blame COVID-19 for disrupting his administration’s “dream of prosperity.” Rather, political direction, strategic leadership, and effective governance are urgently needed to see us through this unprecedented crisis.

Many have lost their lives because of COVID-19. More people are getting sick. More people are hungry. Millions have lost their jobs. Health crisis and recovery should be the government’s priority, not the war on drugs, and certainly not the restoration of the death penalty.

This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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