By Marvin Tort
Expect some form of “rationing” to start in about two weeks, even with some easing on the Luzon-wide lockdown after April 30. And by this, I refer not only to food and other items but also in terms of work opportunities and access to various types of services. In fact, I foresee “rationing” to be a big part of our lives in the next couple of years, at least. What will be rationed? Supplies, to begin with. Many manufacturers and processors are still grappling with bottlenecks in raw material supply, in personnel, and in distribution. And even after the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), as we move to another mode of quarantine or restriction, many of these bottlenecks will remain. For how long, we do not know.
“Access” will likewise be rationed, as movement will remain restricted. Some will be given priority, for one reason or the other, just like under the ECQ. But most will have to wait and see. People will be given a “fixed amount” of access initially, with the “ration” of access and mobility perhaps being increased over time. Public transportation will have to be rationed, initially.
Resources will also have to be rationed at the onset, and this covers both public and private resources. Many public agencies and private corporations have “advanced” a significant amount of resources since March to help the public cope with the pandemic. Some bonuses were actually given ahead particularly to employees. Moving forward, remaining resources for the year and the year after will have to be released in a calibrated manner. Resource allocation will have to be managed, or rationed.
Even the National Government is somewhat overextended at this point. And, any debt incurred now as a result of the great need for resources to address the pandemic is a sure “tax” in the future. How, when, and from whom that “tax” will be collected is anybody’s guess, but it will have to be collected, one way or the other. Public resources will likewise have to be rationed and reprioritized in the coming years.
Speaking of rations, it is distressing to note that some local governments have had to “ration” assistance as well, particularly local units that are somewhat cash-strapped or ill-prepared in terms of resources to deal with the pandemic. I am sure that if one will only bother to review the annual audit reports of LGUs prepared by the Commission on Audit, many will be found to have “underfunded” trust funds for disaster management.
While the Bayanihan Fund is supposed to help address this problem, it is far from sufficient to cover all the poor households that are in dire need of help. I have heard of one first-class municipality that was budgeted to receive over P11 million from that special fund. But, considering the number of poor households in the area, estimated at around 4,000 out of 12,000 households in all, then that amount will have to be equitably “rationed” to maximize its benefit.
That budget comes out to about P2,750 per household, which has an average composition of four individuals. Divide that by the total number of days in lockdown, say 45 days, then that amount translates to about P61 per day for a family of four. And, that is assuming a poverty incidence of only 30% in that municipality. That daily budget can perhaps cover no more than a kilogram of rice and two small sardine cans to cover three meals for a family of four.
Better than nothing, of course. But the fact remains that unless LGUs have prepared for such eventualities, then they will be hard-pressed to provide assistance to their constituents. Even with the declaration of a national emergency, which then allows LGUs to draw on disaster funds, if such trust funds have been mismanaged, then there will not be much to draw on.
The thing is, even if the Commission on Audit audits LGUs annually and flags down deficiencies in disaster trust funds, unless LGUs are made to strictly comply with rules with respect to funding such trusts over time, then deficiencies will remain. LGUs that are non-compliant should not be given much leeway to address audit deficiencies, for such negligence borders on the criminal if trust funds are depleted when disasters happen.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it now reveals to the public the capabilities, or lack thereof, of both the national government and LGUs to respond to disasters. Moreover, it is an opportunity to audit which LGUs have been compliant in providing for disaster trust funds, and which ones were deficient. In the case of the latter, it raises the question whether such deficiency negatively affected the delivery of assistance to constituents.
In the case of wealthier LGUs, it is easy enough to re-channel resources and reallocate them to disaster response and assistance. But what about the poor towns in the provinces, who rely mostly on real property taxes, business licenses, and internal revenue allotments for income? What about barangays that have not been receiving their just share in local taxes? How are they to help their own people in times of need?
Deep pockets do not necessarily mean unlimited funds. Even the private sector can do and give only so much, either by way of donations or assistance or tax payments in advance. LGUs will have to learn to better manage resources, and save for a rainy day. There are good years, and there are lean years. Only by setting aside can LGUs have ample resources during bad periods. LGUs must fend for themselves, because they cannot always rely on the National Government.
Bottomline here is this: disaster funds are set aside for a reason. They are built little by little, and over time. But such trust funds must be funded religiously and consistently. LGUs that fail to do so must be held accountable and liable. At the end of the day, the efficient management of such LGU funds spell the difference between disaster management and disastrous management.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.