Thinking Beyond Politics

Since the virus that causes COVID-19 popped up in Wuhan, China in December 2019, the number of cases around the globe has surpassed the one million mark and the worldwide death toll has already reached more than 50,000. The rapid spread of the virus has tested the limits of health systems around the world and forced countries to tighten their borders and lockdown their cities in attempts to contain and fight the virus. In doing so, the pandemic has also put additional pressure on poor and low-income families whose day-to-day existence has been greatly affected by the lockdown.

The situation has led United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to say that this is the “most challenging crisis” we’ve faced since the Second World War. He added that the COVID-19 pandemic was “a threat to everybody in the world” and could lead to a recession with “no parallel in the recent past.” The Secretary General also said an effective response to this pandemic is only possible if (1.) everybody comes together in solidarity, and (2.) “if we forget political games” and understand what’s really at stake.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has not just tested the strength of the human spirit, health systems, and economies alike, it also confirmed the capacity of our political leaders to set aside political charades, and act as role models of hope and leadership in this time of uncertainty.

Unfortunately, not all leaders have shown their willingness to stop with the political games. In the early stage of the outbreak, Xi Jinping, determined to manage the global perception of China, censored news of a novel deadly virus spreading out of the city of Wuhan. More recently, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has been criticized for and has admitted to deliberately holding back information on COVID-19 cases.

Here at home, President Duterte has also been criticized for taking advantage of the global health crisis to ask Congress for emergency powers. Pushed by his allies in Congress, The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act was approved in record time and granted the President special powers to swiftly address the crisis in the country.

The new law allows the government to use around P210-billion worth of lump sum allocation in the 2020 budget as additional funding to be used to deal with the country’s situation. The biggest chunk of this funding was intended for distribution to the 18 million poor families that were affected as emergency subsidies to help them cope during the quarantine period. 

However, it seems as though the urgency with which Congress passed the emergency powers law has not been matched by the executive in terms of implementation.

So, while many will spend this unusual Holy Week worrying about how to attend mass from the confines of our homes, millions of poor families that live a hand-to-mouth existence are without government support and will be worrying over where to get their next meal.

Thankfully, while the government assembles and slowly rolls out its amelioration programs, leaders from the business and civil society sectors, together with Local Government Units, have stepped forward to take the lead and tried to fill in the gaps.

One notable example is Project Ugnayan, initiated by brothers Fernando and Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala and the nation’s top business groups, industry leaders banded together to raise over P1.6 billion. Through their partnership with Caritas Manila, ABS-CBN’s Pantawid ng Pagibig, Jollibee’s FoodAID program, and ADB and the Government’s “Bayan, Bayanihan!” project, these business groups have continuously distributed gift certificates and food packs to low-income families across Metro Manila.

The group, that has already reached 4,925,595 people, will continue distribution through the Holy Week and beyond and expect to serve a total of 1.5 million families by Easter Sunday. Not only that, this same group has also opened up a new program, Project Kaagapay, to fund the procurement of more medical supplies for frontliners such as PPEs and ventilators.

But while our leaders from the private sector have shown us that it’s not business as usual, a question for our political leaders begs to be answered: Can they stop and withdraw from their usual political games long enough to unite us behind an inclusive and effective whole-of-society response to COVID-19?

In his speech last Friday, President Rodrigo Duterte showed indications that the answer might be yes.

He defended Vice-President Leni Robredo from a certain commissioner of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) who wanted to investigate her efforts in helping and alleviating the health crisis. The President said: “This is not the time for politicking. We are not concerned with any personality. Our main concern is to make sure all the needy Filipinos get all the help they need.”

However, in that same speech, he also said a lot of other things, like berating a political opponent and reinforcing his order to the police to shoot quarantine violators, but only in self- defense.

At this point of uncertainty and adversity, we do not need authoritarian leaders. What we need are courageous and thinking leaders who will set aside ambitions and hidden agendas for the sake of the Filipino constituents; leaders who are ready to take a stand and provide solutions in the face of a global health crisis. 

Victor Andres “Dindo” Manhit is the President of Stratbase ADR Institute.