Venice Isabelle Rañosa, Research Manager, Stratbase ADR Institute
Filipinos have been mired in agony for more than a year now as the country grapples to address the COVID-19 pandemic. During these hard times, income, job security, and affordable prices of goods and services are the most urgent concerns.
The Philippines recorded its worst full-year contraction in its post-war history, with a 9.6% fall, the steepest plunge in the Southeast Asian region in 2020. Prolonged and restrictive lockdowns imposed to counter the spread of the virus forced thousands of businesses to either temporarily or permanently shut down, leading to a record-high unemployment rate of 10.3% in 2020 — the highest recorded annual unemployment rate since 2005 — that translated to 4.5 million jobless Filipinos, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). By February 2021, the unemployment rate eased at 8.8%, or equivalent to 4.2 million unemployed Filipinos. Moreover, based on data from the PSA, the inflation rates during the first three months of 2021 were above 4%, higher than those in the preceding months. The average inflation rate in 2020 stood at 2.6%.
While quarantine measures and mobility restrictions were gradually eased in the latter part of 2020 and the country’s growth prospects began to improve, the reimposition of stricter quarantine measures in March 2021 to address the renewed spike in COVID-19 cases disrupted the country’s overall growth momentum and staved off some of the economic improvements attained during the past few months. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) recently lowered its economic growth forecast for the Philippines to 4.5% in 2021, from the original 6.5%.
As people worry about their basic needs, so does the government face its own challenges in raising revenues and dealing with its ballooning debt burden. Data from the Department of Finance (DoF) show that as of April 8, a total of $15.49 billion (or around P750 billion) worth of loans and grants have been secured by the Philippine government from multilateral institutions for COVID-19 response.
The general public has borne the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis. On the ground realities show that the vast majority are deeply affected, and more are losing their livelihood. The latest survey of the Social Weather Stations (SWS) in the fourth quarter of 2020 found that 16% of Filipino families, or around 4 million families, experienced involuntary hunger at least once in the past three months. In addition, the survey revealed that 62% of Filipinos said that their quality-of-life got worse compared to a year ago.
To mitigate the economic impact of the lockdowns imposed since March 2020, big businesses quickly mobilized their resources to distribute food, medical supplies, free transportation and internet connection, isolation facilities, and COVID-19 testing centers to help ease the burden of the most vulnerable sectors of society. This collective action by the private sector allowed the government to buy time in addressing the national emergency.
One year later, the overall situation has not improved. The number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities has not eased, and the renewed spike in cases even surpassed the peak levels last August. Since community quarantine classifications are dependent on the COVID-19 situation in a particular area, a surge in cases can lead to recurring cycles of stricter quarantine measures.
Because of the dearth of government assistance, private citizens took it upon themselves to help each other rather than depend entirely on the government. Thus came the idea of the community pantry, which was undertaken as an informal initiative on Maginhawa Street in Diliman, Quezon City, to help people get by during the hard times. The driving force was not big business: this time, it was the small private citizens.
Reinventing the donation-based undertakings where the decision-making centered on the donor who distributed donations to target beneficiaries, the community pantry put the decision-making on both the donor and recipient. What was striking was the element of trust, honesty, and generosity, an innate nature of Filipino that bloomed amidst these dire straits.
Much sought-after and greatly appreciated, the mushrooming community pantries all over the country are an informal initiative that filled in the needs of the hungry victims of this crisis. A responsibility that the government failed to do.
However, these creatively simple and effective interventions are only emergency solutions that are understandably for the short-term. At this point, what is urgently needed is a more aggressive vaccination program to provide the people with protection from the virus. Otherwise, the emergency situation brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic will persist and economic recovery will continue to be hampered.
The country’s leaders must be able to efficiently and adequately address the mounting economic and social problems through the creation of decent jobs, income security, and affordable prices for goods and services. The whole of society must play their part in addressing this massive crisis that’s overwhelming the nation today. More importantly, the role of the private sector in alleviating economic hardships should be recognized and empowered. After all, through favorable investments, it is the private sector that generates jobs and creates livelihood opportunities. Public-private partnerships must continually be strengthened to harness the resources of both the government and the private sector.
This is a time for responsible citizenship, good governance, and a spirit of positivity that will inspire a collective commitment to defeating the virus and restarting an economic renaissance.
This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.