A year of small victories, big impact amid COVID-19 pandemic

Paco A. Pangalangan, Executive Director, Stratbase ADR Institute

It is hard to imagine that the country has been in a perpetual state of lockdown since March 2020. The last year has been an uphill battle, both in terms of the economy and public health.

Many businesses have been forced to either close or scale back operations, which has led to the loss of jobs and the economy’s stagnation. As a result, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 9.5% last year, the first annual contraction since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.

At the same time, the condition of public health in the country continues to worsen. A study released last month by the ASEAN Studies Centre entitled “The State of Southeast Asia: 2021” found that the Philippines scored the lowest among ASEAN countries in government pandemic response, with 53.7% of Filipinos disapproving of the government’s pandemic response.

Furthermore, the number of new daily COVID-19 infections in the country spiked just shy of the 10,000-mark the other day, up from the “usual” 2-3 thousand. The spike has hospitals overwhelmed anew. It has also ushered in yet another new term for the increasingly nuanced set of government quarantine measures— the ‘NCR Plus’ bubble.

All this, while neighboring countries continue to trend down in terms of COVID-19 cases and trend up in vaccination and economic growth.

Given this bleak reality, we Filipinos have faced daily for the last year, it becomes easy to be consumed by the many pain points and challenges we as a society continue to face.

Indeed, it is essential to remember these challenges and instances where we have fallen short in order for us to learn, course-correct, while also holding those in power accountable for their decisions and indecision that have led us to where we are now.

Nevertheless, neither should we let such challenges stop us from recognizing small victories along the way.

For instance, one victory worth celebrating is the emergence of non-government stakeholders, such as civil society organizations (CSOs) and the business sector, as reliable contributors to the country’s pandemic response and nation-building.

According to the World Economic Forum, CSOs serve a critical role in global pandemic and economic recovery for three key reasons. Representation, since these groups provide aid and advocate for those marginalized by the pandemic. For communication and trust, since CSOs often acts as information channels and first responders for citizens on the ground.

Furthermore, CSOs also act as democratic watchdogs, scrutinizing the government’s spending and response plans and demand transparency and accountability. This brings to mind the efforts by from groups such as our own Democracy Watch Philippines and Transparency International Philippines that seek to raise awareness and vigilantly combat new opportunities for corruption created by the pandemic.

At the same time, we must also celebrate the unique way the Philippine business sector has gone beyond what was expected of it in response to the pandemic.

I recall it was about one year ago too that Project Ugnayan was launched. A special-purpose coalition of 270 private companies led by business leaders and brothers Fernando and Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, the initiative raised funds and donations to provide food to 14 million economically vulnerable individuals in hard-hit Metro Manila.

This effort provided much-needed food, supplies, and hope to families left without a source of income or government aid during the first few critical months of lockdown.

The business sector also played a pivotal role in ramping up the country’s testing capacity. Through Task Force T3 (for Test, Trace, Treat), a public-private sector partnership between the Department of Health, AC Health/Qualimed, MPIC Hospital Group, Bloomberry Cultural Foundation Inc. (BCFI), as well as the Philippine National Red Cross and Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation, the country was able to build several Mega Swabbing Centers and beef-up its much-needed testing capacity.

A year into this pandemic and the private sector is still playing a vital role in the country’s pandemic response, this time by helping to bring vaccines into the country.

Led by International Container Terminal Services Inc. (ICTSI) Chairman Enrique K. Razon Jr., the private sector and the Philippine government recently sealed an agreement with vaccine manufacture Moderna Inc. for 20 million doses of their coronavirus vaccine. It is the country’s largest vaccine supply deal to date and, given the recent spike in the number of cases, comes as a welcome development.

Granted, a vigilant civil society and pro-active business sector are small victories given the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis and the deep and lasting effects it will have, not only on our economy but on our way of life. Nevertheless, these victories have big impacts, and not only for those that directly benefited from Project Ugnayan’s aid, Task Force T3 testing centers, or by those soon to be inoculated.

These victories illustrate that a multi-sectoral effort is vital to overcoming societal challenges. They also serve as reminders of the value of stakeholders that not only step up to these challenges but go beyond what is expected of them.

During a recent virtual business round table discussion organized by Stratbase ADR Institute, Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, chairman and CEO of Ayala Corporation said that “we anticipate that this private sector contribution – through individual firms, private-with-private partnerships or private-public partnerships — will continue well into post-COVID times, particularly in figuring out how to rebuild and recover.”

He later added that “I sincerely believe that the private sector is a force for growth and a force for good. And if we continue to put our collective resources and determination to task, we will be able to force multiply the growth and the good that we contribute to nation-building.”

With a year’s worth of hindsight, one thing is clear, a vigilant civil society and pro-active business sector are essential for our country’s recovery.

This article was originally published in philstar.com. Image Source: The STAR/Michael Varcas.

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