Surely no one wants a repeat of the over two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. True, Worldometer continues to monitor the global incidence of coronavirus cases, placing it at 688,060,271 as of yesterday, with deaths reaching 6,872,832. With the latest global population of 8 billion, COVID-19 was a scourge for nearly 9% of the population, killing .09%.
The Philippines was 37th in the global ranking with 4,106,974 total cases and 66,453 by mortality, topped by the United States with over 100 million cases, and mortalities at 1,162,662. We were lower than Switzerland, Canada, Belgium, and even Israel, and most European countries. But what is interesting is that while our total cases were lower, we chalked up more deaths than many of them. By total cases and deaths per 1 million population, we paled in comparison with the more populous India, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. We had 36,509 total cases per million of our 112.5 million population with mortalities totaling 591.
India’s population is 1.4 billion but its total cases per million stood at only 31,973 with only 378 deaths per million. Indonesia’s statistics were equally impressive against its 279.1 million population: 24,333 total cases and 579 deaths. Bangladesh was even more impressive against its 167.9 million population, showing total cases of 12,141 with only 175 deaths.
We raise this issue of the COVID-19 pandemic because the World Health Organization (WHO) declared its end as a “public health emergency of international concern.” But here in the Philippines, the Department of Health (DoH) officer in charge, the indefatigable Maria Rosario Vergeire was quoted in the broadsheets saying that the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) is considering whether it would recommend to the authorities that we “take the cue” from this WHO declaration.
We hear Dr. Vergeire in her position that it might be premature to claim the virus has lost its momentum in the Philippines.
Just a few days ago, the DoH itself reported a 112% increase in daily new COVID-19 cases even as deaths and healthcare utilization rates remain low. Last Sunday, it was also reported that 1,920 new cases were detected, the highest single-day incidence since October of last year. With the positivity rate rising to some 20%, this means one in every five people who went through RT-PCR tested positive. What is concerning here is that these cases are not limited to Metro Manila. High positivity rates have also been recorded in Batangas, Bulacan, Camarines Sur, Cavite, Isabela, Laguna, and Rizal.
But one of our health experts, Dr. Edsel Salvana, was quoted on television saying that some of the restrictions now appear to be unnecessary. This means the pandemic is now more controllable following the wider rollout of the vaccines and medicines. Our strict health protocols may now be unwound. Salvana suggested that in due course, COVID would be reduced to the status of some common ailments like dengue and flu which are seasonal and the spread of which could be managed with our current resources and capacity.
We see great positive implications of this new twist to the pandemic on our economic and business activities.
Personal mobility is expected to accelerate with constructive impact on private spending and production activities in contrast to the severe lockdown in 2020 and 2021. Tourism and social services will receive new wind to hasten their recovery and growth. Social gathering and business activities can be better accommodated in hotels and other events places.
It is arguable whether the old normal could still be restored but without the threat of the virus, we have a whole range of possibilities to repair the economic scars we sustained in the last three years.
We would just have to ensure we choose our economic battles well.
There’s a long string of battles waiting to be fought, but we don’t have to take them all up. In another broadsheet, we argued that we need a fiscal policy that supports, rather than complicates, both the fight against inflation and the goal of sustained economic growth. Fiscal policy should promote fiscal sustainability by way of a more responsible and disciplined use of the budget. Economic growth in the Philippines proved resilient with the 6.4% real GDP expansion in the first quarter despite the sharp increases in monetary policy rates totaling 425 basis points.
The move to rationalize the budget-based, non-contributory pension system of the military and uniformed personnel would go a long way in promoting fiscal and debt sustainability. The commitment and hazardous mission of the military and uniformed personnel are not the issue here, but it is justice and fairness for all taxpayers especially those in the civil service.
Malacañang should also be able to decide whether the bill proposing the creation of the Maharlika Investment Fund is good for the Philippines and the leadership of President Bongbong Marcos. Still pending in the Senate, the bill, if passed into law, will sequester the funds coming from the Land Bank and the Development Bank of the Philippines as well as those from government-owned and -controlled corporations away from the national budget and invested here and abroad.
That act will directly result in lower revenues for the National Government that will then have to be funded from higher taxes that people detest at this difficult time, or higher borrowings that could further shrink the budget for hospitals, education, and other social services in favor of debt servicing. That is bad fiscal policy.
Most important, the bill will also pull away the dividends of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) from recapitalizing itself as mandated by its amended charter. Instead of fortifying the capacity of the BSP in promoting price and financial stability and helping the banks in case of financial distress, Congress will unwittingly direct it to use those dividends for profit. Never mind if we see bank runs proliferating in case the state banks fail, or the BSP flounders in its stabilization role. That is an insensitive fiscal policy.
Our national leadership should know that in this fragmented global economy, it would be more than challenging to see the financial goals of the Maharlika bill realized immediately. Our people need food, housing, education, health, and other social services today, rather than tomorrow. Our people continue to struggle against high inflation due to serious supply and logistical problems, among others. Therefore, we need a bigger budget for agriculture research and development and support services, industrial development and digitalization, higher quality of education in sciences and engineering. Otherwise, we are pursuing an ill-timed fiscal policy.
If we are able to fight the right battles, we should be able to address the remaining issue of the pandemic and minimize the risks to public health and economic growth should we have a pandemic 2.0. We should recall that the free vaccination program of the government was made possible because of the sustained funding of the mass inoculation program. The declaration of the state of calamity on March 16, 2020 allowed the government to access quick response funds to contain the pandemic. Former President Rodrigo Duterte signed Proclamation 929 which was extended twice, and President Marcos extended it only once until end-December last year. With more than 78 million of the population already fully vaccinated, the state of calamity today no longer exists.
What we have today is still a state of public health emergency. Once revoked, vaccine makers can apply for the so-called certificate of product registration (CPR) which would allow the private sector to gain access to such vaccines and usher in their commercial use. Kawawa na naman ang mahihirap! (It is the poor who are unfortunate again!)
At present, all vaccines in the government’s stock are distributed and administered for free under an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.
Under this system, it was also reported that we have about 15 million jabs in our inventory that would expire between March to October this year. If these are not distributed and administered, we are looking at a total of 60 million useless doses by the end of 2023. Like the Pharmally scandal that cost the Philippine government billions of pesos in overpriced, soiled pandemic collaterals, how we ended up with these expired vaccines should be investigated before we make additional allocations for free vaccines or allow the vaccines for commercial use.
These might be small details, but we could not rule out their connection to our travails during the pandemic, now or in future pandemics. They should matter.
Diwa C. Guinigundo is the former deputy governor for the Monetary and Economics Sector, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). He served the BSP for 41 years. In 2001-2003, he was alternate executive director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC. He is the senior pastor of the Fullness of Christ International Ministries in Mandaluyong.