“THE world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” — St. Augustine
I enjoy traveling and planned a series of trips after my early retirement in 2020. Most of these went away because of the travel restrictions forced upon us by the pandemic. This week, however, I finally found the courage to travel if only to greet my mother in celebrating her 86th and have a short reunion with my siblings. As always, there were many takeaways from the eyes of a curious development observer.
The US is famous for its national system of interstate highways. California is well known for its freeways which are considered as cultural touchtone. Built in the 1940s and early 1950s, California’s vast highway system shows how the car is indeed king. The State spends millions on improvements yearly, like carpool lanes and shoring up the infrastructure to withstand earthquakes.
But what catches the Filipino’s eyes as much as the vast network of roads is how driving discipline is imposed. My brother lived in Los Angeles for more than 20 years and I witness how comfortable he drives through the system, following the lane rules and in fact moving fast but in accordance with the speed limits.
In contrast, when in the Philippines, he abhors driving not just because of the traffic but mostly because nobody sticks to the lane. In fact, some lanes in Manila, when followed strictly can lead to road mishap. Why? Because the lanes are not well defined and when a new construction or road repair is at hand, authorities don’t even bother to correct the lane designation. And he’s amazed at the big increase of motorcycle drivers who weave in and out of the lanes. In Manila, driving is notoriously impaired by absence of road discipline and poor enforcement. Parking spaces in malls and public places are also generous in the US, with enough space in between cars. Comparatively, mall parking areas in the Philippines are just enough to fit vehicles as mall owners try to maximize space use.
Somehow, management of our road system and the driving discipline is symptomatic of the way the country is run. “My way or the highway” is an expression that speaks of a leadership style that is autocratic or, at worst, dictatorial. It is managing with the illusion of infallibility. If the leadership is not willing to listen, the arrogance will eventually backfire. Discipline is imagined because of fear, but this narrow-minded style will not engender the respect that will bring out the best of the governed.
On another front, the Los Angeles County no longer requires people to wear masks at indoor public places if they can show proof of vaccination. Masks are still required in public transit and transportation hubs, such as trains, airplanes, rideshares, airports and bus terminals. Americans are learning to live with the pandemic and are eager to return to normalcy. Most of the onerous pandemic restrictions like shutdowns or remote schooling for children have largely come to an end.
These developments in the US are happening despite covid deaths of around 10,000 per week. The Biden administration has faced a few setbacks in its pandemic program. According to a New York Times article, “the administration has gotten much right, but its response has been hampered by confusing messaging, a lack of focus on testing, fear of political blowback and the coronavirus unpredictability”. Nonetheless, Pres. Biden continues to project a sense of optimism, even as he calls the development towards a “new normal,” a job not yet finished. The biggest accomplishment of the administration is getting at least one dose of vaccine into nearly 85% of Americans 12 years and older. Pres. Biden has however rejected lockdowns, school closes and other extreme measures.
America is indeed nearing the next normal. Just watch NBA games on TV and you’ll see coliseums packed with people, with or without masks. The Philippines is too far off. We should aim to hit our vaccination target and get back to normal soonest. On a personal note and as a part time university faculty, I am concerned about the continued exclusive reliance on the virtual mode of teaching. If it is an issue at the collegiate level, it is more of a potential catastrophe for grade school students. The country’s average age is supposed to be our sweet spot in terms of development and progress. But if we are not able to educate our youth well early on, especially during their formative years, we will pay a big price for this mistake with the quality of our future talent pool.
It is unfortunate that the pandemic has restricted our ability to travel and read the world “book”. When things improve, those with the opportunity should expand their mind by observing what goes on elsewhere as there is so much to learn that can benefit the way we do things. There is no need to reinvent development models. Most of the innovations and best practices that deserve emulation have probably been done elsewhere. We just need to open our eyes.
Benel Dela Paz Lagua was previously executive vice-president and Chief Development Officer at the Development Bank of the Philippines. He is an active FINEX member and an advocate of risk-based lending for SMEs. The views expressed herein are his own and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of his office as well as FINEX.