JUDGING by the numbers, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) has done well in responding to the coronavirus public health crisis.

As of June 12, the region had 54 confirmed cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), one of the lowest among the 17 regions in the country. And of the total, 80% were returning residents or overseas workers who were immediately placed in prepared isolation facilities as they started to arrive in late May.

From the initial 11 cases, a potential surge in local transmission did not happen and the four deaths recorded were mainly from among the first patients who contracted the virus.

Another threat in March that was contained involved some 200 Islamic preachers from various parts of the country, but with a majority from BARMM, who attended a gathering at the Jamek Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, a meeting to which many of Malaysia’s COVID-19 cases were linked.

BARMM Health Minister Saffrullah M. Dipatuan said at the time that the region’s inter-agency task force immediately organized a contact-tracing effort with local governments, the National Commission for Muslim Filipinos, other national agencies, and the Malaysian government.

“The Bangsamoro Government has been doing great with minimum tallied cases… Even if BARMM has been operating for merely almost a year, the response has been commendable,” Secretary Carlito G. Galvez, Jr., chief implementer of the national COVID-19 task force, said during a visit to the region in early June.

Having a government in transition means challenges in governance, manpower recruitment, and budget access and coordination with the National Government, among other areas.

On top of this, BARMM is also contending with the region’s longstanding problems: poverty, with 54% of households having insufficient income to buy minimum basic needs, violent extremism, clan disputes, and the physical — and corresponding psychosocial — rehabilitation of Marawi City.

BARMM Cabinet Secretary Mohd Asnin Pendatun, designated spokesperson of the regional inter-agency task force (IATF), said the effective response may be attributed to the regional government serving as “consolidator” for the health emergency measures.

He noted that BARMM used existing disaster management structures such as the Incident Command System and its management teams down to the provincial level.

“Our role really was to be the regional consolidator… to synchronize our approach and responses to COVID-19,” he said in a May 20 webinar organized by the Institute for Autonomy and Governance.

On the other hand, Francisco Lara, Jr., senior peace and conflict adviser for Asia of the independent organization International Alert, flagged how the regional government and the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) allowed the National Government to take back “most of its devolved and autonomous powers and authority” in response to the crisis.

Mr. Pendatun said local government units (LGUs) were initially “given much power… room to implement community quarantine rules in their localities,” but this was withdrawn in what the national IATF called a “streamlining” of the response structure.

“So beginning May 16, no LGU, be it province, city, or municipality, can implement its own version or add or subtract to the guidelines without approval from the national IATF and endorsement from the regional IATF,” he said.

The cabinet secretary also noted the difficulty of distributing cash aid from the National Government.

Mr. Lara cautioned that, “If unchecked, the public health crisis may undermine the agenda of devolution, decentralization, and autonomy embedded in the Bangsamoro project.”

Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III, who co-chairs the Inter-Governmental Relations Body with BARMM Education Minister Mohagher Iqbal, is aware of such concerns and has given reassurance that the national government is committed to achieving a genuinely autonomous Bangamoro.

One of the key issues is the Bangsamoro government’s push to be lead implementer of nationally funded programs in the region.

“I assure you that the agencies of the National Government serving as counter-parties in these coordination mechanisms are as fully committed to move forward with this bold initiative in autonomy,” Mr. Dominguez was quoted as saying during a May 29 online meeting with BARMM officials.

Asserting BARMM’s wider autonomy is important as it pursues recovery, said International Alert Country Manager Nikki Philline C. de la Rosa, because it is in the best position to build on the gains of the peace process and deliver sustainable economic and social reforms — especially in the face of the continuing COVID-19 crisis and reemerging threats.

“The inability of state actors to respond in a timely and effective manner to reduce people’s vulnerabilities in the face of a pandemic has caused new tensions, pressures, and horizontal conflicts. Criminal groups, violent extremists, and warring clans are showing renewed activity as security forces remain focused on the implementation of the enhanced community quarantine. The pandemic has caused further delays in the Marawi rehabilitation process, and this also contributed to the mounting social unrest,” Ms. Dela Rosa said.

Moving forward, Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, senior research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center, said the Bangsamoro transition administration, which will be in place until 2022, “should build on the dynamics of cooperation and coordination amongst the different LGUs and national government agencies within the BARMM fostered during this national health emergency.”

Ms. Dela Rosa also said the region should tap “evidence-based and data-driven tools” to ensure that “plans and responses are sensitive to the new context and conflict dynamics.”

She said, “Utilizing local capacities in monitoring tensions and conflict and coordinating appropriate response before they erupt into violence would make economic recovery easier.”

Mr. Pendatun acknowledged that the coronavirus is undeniably “an added burden” to what the region needs to accomplish for the transition phase by 2022, but he said “the Bangsamoro government will be up to the challenge.”— Marifi S. Jara