I can’t help but admire the way the Biden administration has taken over and governed in its first 100 days. It has unleashed in rapid fire fashion a series of plans and programs that are meant to address both the US short-term and long-term problems. Disagree you may with US President Joe Biden’s expansive view of government, but you can’t deny that he has submitted to the US Congress detailed plans, from dealing with the pandemic to rebuilding the US’s physical and human infrastructure. In other words, no learning on the job for President Biden. He had a running start.

I wonder, however, how the next Philippine administration will govern in its first 100 days. Whoever the next President will be — Davao Mayor Sarah Duterte, Senator Manny Pacquiao, Sonny Trillanes, VP Leni Robredo, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, Bongbong Marcos, or Senator Grace Poe — will he/she be off to a running start? Will he/she have the detailed plans and programs, including the specific legislation, that would enable the country to heal quickly from the effects of the pandemic and deal with the structural problems of Philippine society? Or, in the absence of a clear program, will the next administration instead go about exacting retribution on its political enemies and their business supporters, as had happened in the past?

I’m afraid that even though the country has lost two — maybe three — years to the pandemic, it will take the next President that much time to learn on the job and propose solutions. By that time, however, the next elections would be coming along and politics, rather than what the country needs to do to heal and bounce back, will drive the agenda.

A source of this problem is that the country doesn’t have a genuine political party system. The winning candidate usually forges an unlikely coalition from among opportunistic politicians, personal and family dynastic supporters, and all sorts of vested interests. The result is a fragmented, incoherent vision without detailed plans. Absent a political party system, the winning Presidential candidate also rely on either relatives (Kamaganak, Kaklase, Kaibigan during former President Aquino’s time) or in the case of President Duterte, classmates (San Beda Law School), frat mates (Lex Taliones), Davao cronies, and ex-police and ex-military to staff the new government. Alas, no best and the brightest here.

Also, without a deep analysis of what ails Philippine society and government, the incoming President usually zigs and zags. Look at President Duterte. He started out by appointing leftists in his government, such as Rafael Mariano in the Department of Agrarian Reform and Judy Taguiwalo in the Department of Social Welfare and Development, but he has ended up red-tagging organizations and embarking on a hard anti-communist crackdown.

I shudder to think what would happen if the next President tries to learn on the job while dealing with the lingering effects of the pandemic, a huge unemployment and hunger problem, a massive fiscal deficit, rising food prices and food insecurity, and businesses still reeling from pandemic-caused losses. If he or she also gets advisers with different economic and political philosophies without a clear action plan, we will have mayhem, conflict, and continuing uncertainty.

Let’s face it. We have a continuing collective action problem. This is very evident in the way we have dealt with the pandemic. For all the paeans to the whole-of-society approach, response has been haphazard, fragmented, and, well, incompetent. Just look at the procurement and distribution of vaccines. In other countries, you have the government solely procuring the vaccines and distributing them for free. Here, you have the National Government, the local governments, elements from the private sector, buccaneers, and even smugglers, getting in on the action. Sometimes, the vaccines are free. Sometimes you have to pay for them. Sometimes you even have to pay double the price, with half supposedly given to more needy patients.

Even the government contact tracing is incoherent and inefficient. There are as many contract tracing apps as there are LGUs.

Our continuing collective action problem is symptomatic of a weak state. I’m wondering if somehow a protectionist, inward-looking economy is the cause of our continuing collective action problem and our weak state.

It’s true, however, that states which have been forged and tested in war, such as Israel and Vietnam, have fared very well in managing the pandemic.

However, is there another common denominator? India and the Latin American states, which have both an economic history of protectionism and statism, as the Philippines has, have fared very badly against the pandemic. States characterized by rent-seeking tend to be weaker because it’s in the interest of the ruling groups for their respective states to be weak so as to generate rents and concessions.

In contrast, the outward-looking economies tend to have stronger states — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, and China. Outward-looking economies are those which are export-oriented. Rent-seeking is moderated by the need to compete in the global marketplace. A strong and efficient state is therefore needed for their respective export champions to win in the global marketplace. Bad roads, for example, will increase the cost of a country’s exports and make it less competitive. Therefore, these countries with an outward-looking orientation have a need for stronger states and have fared relatively better in managing the pandemic. Here, where the oligarchy is in regulated domestic services, such as power, telecoms, shipping and ports, there is little or no incentive to demand an efficient state.

I, therefore, don’t subscribe to the “damaged culture” thesis because I believe economic incentives foster and reinforce the “culture,” rather than the other way around. You can substitute “outward-looking” to East Asian culture and you can get a similar result.

The absence of a strong state to solve our collective action problem is the reason why community pantries have sprung up, or why the big private sector conglomerates have gotten involved in the vaccination program. However, this isn’t the optimal solution. The country’s pandemic response remains disjointed and incoherent. Bara-bara, in the vernacular. Even the private sector is feuding with government agencies on the use of the Nayong Pilipino site as a mega-vaccination center. The strong, vigorous state that will solve a public health problem is nowhere to be seen. There’s no Hobbesian Leviathan, just Philippine askal (street dog).

In addition, the quality of the pandemic response can’t be correlated with whether the country is authoritarian or democratic. Russia, which touted its Sputnik vaccine as the first vaccine against COVID-19 in the world, is struggling to vaccinate its population. It has administered 26 million doses so far, or just about 9% of its population, assuming two doses per person.

The United States, in contrast, has vaccinated about 61% of its population with one dose while 39.6% are fully vaccinated. COVID-19 infection rates and deaths are falling rapidly. US President Joe Biden is targeting to get 70% of the population vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4.

With its vaccination program on track and a $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan being rolled out, the US economy is bouncing back vigorously. Economists expect the US economy to be back to pre-pandemic levels by the third quarter and to grow 7% annually, its highest growth rate in decades. One business magazine has called the US the next tiger economy.

We in the Philippines can only look in envy. We are still far from controlling the pandemic. To add insult to injury, President Duterte feeds the public red-tagging and tries to divide, rather than unite, the nation. The economy looks very shaky and may take years to recover. There seems to be no detailed plan, as US President Joe Biden has, to get the economy to bounce back strongly and for society to heal its wounds.

Sadly, there will be no deus ex machina for the Philippines, even after the May 2022 elections. No Superman can save the Philippines. What’s lacking is effective collective action. Sadly, so far, we have no medicine for our continuing collective action failure.


Calixto V. Chikiamco is a board director of the Institute for Development and Econometric Analysis.