By Beatrice M. Laforga

BUSINESSES have suffered about P700 billion in revenue losses so far as strict lockdown measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) forced companies to halt operations since mid-March, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) said on Thursday.

“Based on the surveys we gathered, the effect of COVID-19, primarily because of the ECQ (enhanced community quarantine), is some P700 billion,” NEDA Acting Secretary Karl Kendrick T. Chua said at a Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) online briefing.

NEDA has conducted three surveys with about 44,000 total responses. The surveys assessed the impact of the pandemic and ECQ on micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs); agriculture and fisheries; and consumers.

NEDA Undersecretary Rosemarie G. Edillon in a mobile phone message said the P700-billion losses were from businesses including those in the agriculture sector.

Mr. Chua said the NEDA is preparing more surveys that will assess the impact of the coronavirus crisis on larger enterprises.

NEDA has yet to release the official survey results.

Based on the country’s P18.6-trillion gross domestic product (GDP), Mr. Chua estimated that the economy stands to lose about P1.1 trillion if the economy fails to grow this year.

In a March 19 report, NEDA estimated a cumulative loss of P428.7 billion to P1.35 trillion in gross value added (in current prices), equivalent to 2.1 to 6.6% of nominal gross domestic product (GDP) this year.

At that time, NEDA said a one-month lockdown in Luzon may result in a loss of gross value added of P298 billion to P1.1 trillion, and job losses of 61,000 to 1 million.

The one-and-a-half month Luzon-wide lockdown has brought over 70% of the Philippine economy to a standstill and forced many businesses to temporarily close or scale down. The strict lockdown was extended until May 15 in Metro Manila and other outbreak hotspots, while some provinces will gradually ease restrictions starting today (May 1).

Meanwhile, Mr. Chua said there is a “good potential” that the first-quarter GDP could post a growth.

However, downside risks may drag this to a lower-than-expected print largely due to “exogenous shocks” that happened in January-March, the NEDA chief added.

These “shocks” include the eruption of Taal Volcano in late January, the lockdown in China and travel bans that dampened trade and tourism, as well as the start of the Luzon-wide ECQ in mid-March.

‘”We have a good potential to see a positive growth [in the first quarter], but we shouldn’t be surprised if the numbers are not to our best favor,” Mr. Chua said.

First-quarter GDP data will be released on May 7.

Mr. Chua sees the economy bouncing back in the second half as more parts of the country gradually ease lockdown restrictions to a general community quarantine (GCQ), where nonessential businesses can reopen provided they observe safety protocols.

“May 1, you will see many provinces transfer from the ECQ status to the GCQ status, that is I think a very clear indication that we are getting towards the end of the tunnel,” he said.

“I think there is a strong possibility of a rebound by June, so that we can begin with the recovery phase and we will prepare for that very well in the coming weeks,” he added.

But Mr. Chua said the government will take a “very conservative and careful” approach in terms of opening up the economy to avoid a second wave of COVID-19 cases.

“We already know the regrets of some countries in the region and the world when they opened up too soon, so we would rather be conservative, and use this time wisely to prepare the health sector, flatten the curve and get ready. So when we do actually fully open up, we will never regret, and we will not see a spike or second wave [of infections],” he said.

Economic managers have said GDP growth may be flat this year at best, or contract by 1% at worst.