By the Ateneo de Manila Department of Political Science
(First of an eight-part series)
EACH CRISIS is disruptive and instructive.
The Department of Political Science of Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) invites readers to join this series as we attempt to make sense of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and learn early lessons from it. We read the coronavirus outbreak as primarily a public health and safety concern with attendant issues of politics and power dynamics in decision making. As the crisis unfolds, political decisions will not only affect lives, but also the course of States the world over.
Each piece in this series examines sites of consensus and points of tension and debate at the local, national, regional and global levels of governance, as well as in critical spaces where they overlap. We hope to highlight effective political practices and problematic ones and the social and political constraints that citizens and governments need to confront in addressing the crisis.
Even in times of crisis, the AdMU Department of Political Science continues to advocate for: evidence-informed policy making; institutional over personal political agendas; and, critical pedagogy as an approach to citizenship education. Hence, this political discussion series.
COVID-19 CRISIS AND STRUCTURAL CHANGE
Each crisis carries the potential for structural change.
The COVID-19 crisis is not only claiming lives, it is changing structural relations all over the world: how nations are governed, how nations cooperate, how nations secure themselves, how markets and industries are run, how work is organized, how products are consumed, how services are exchanged, how learning is conducted, how communication is delivered, and, how states and societies relate to one another. Because of the crisis, new concepts and practices have surfaced. People across the globe are adjusting to new practices: “social distancing,” “online learning,” “working from home,” “lockdown,” “travel ban,” “community quarantine.”
The potential for change, however, is often not as visible as existing structural flaws. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the flaws, for example, in public health systems everywhere, in both developed and developing countries. Furthermore, that all-dominant phenomenon of globalization where global markets rule is now being questioned. Countries everywhere are now putting up borders instead of breaking them.
People are now questioning what global wealth and abundance mean given the evident lack of resources to combat COVID-19. The pandemic is highlighting global poverty and insecurity, not global wealth and security. The world is now reckoning with the human, social and environmental costs of unbridled, borderless, global production and exchange.
The putting up of national barriers is not entirely new. In recent years we have witnessed various advocacies for the fortification of national borders. We have also seen how these advocacies are linked to racism and protectionism (think Trump and Brexit). Today, these right-wing advocates are quick to use the COVID-19 crisis as a pretext to bolster their racist and protectionist calls. Meanwhile, the call by left-wing advocates for the world to “deglobalize” is also now being heard.
The “global” in this “global pandemic” must thus be thoroughly examined. While borders are being put up to contain the pandemic, the fact of the matter is, no nation can sufficiently address the pandemic on its own. No matter the current questioning of globalization, the world will have to cooperate to combat a virus that doesn’t recognize race or borders.
GLOBAL PANDEMIC, LOCAL CONTEXTS
This crisis is unique for each context.
“Global” does not only mean scale. “Global” also means depth. This entails not just a perspective from global norms but also an appreciation of the inevitable dropdown to the local context. And, while there is a need to “learn from best practices,” there is also a need to understand what will make a national situation unique: which sector is most vulnerable, which intervention is most effective and which weaknesses and strengths can be drawn from previous experiences.
As of this writing, in the Philippines, the sectors made most vulnerable by the COVID-19 crisis are the health workers and frontliners, workers in the informal economy, and, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It must be remembered, however, that for the Philippines, “the global” has one face: the Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW). The strategic impact of the crisis on OFWs and on our economy that is remittance-driven and consumption-led cannot be overstated.
The status of OFWs as a vulnerable sector is now amplified because of the emerging stigma attached to OFWs as likely carriers of the coronavirus. OFWs are often valued by Philippine society and their hometowns as sources of remittances and by their countries of destination as much needed labor. Here or abroad, these OFWs are viewed primarily as workers or consumers and not as citizens. In both home and host countries, the needs of the more “permanent” population are first attended to by national and local governments and the needs of the “mobile” population viewed as secondary concerns.
Governments neglect the reality, for example, that social distancing is very difficult for OFWs. Living conditions for many OFWs (i.e communal or dormitory type quarters) already put them at risk and most OFWs receive little or no support from employers or host states at a time of crisis. Moreover, their prospective return has been viewed largely as a risk by some LGUs who have refused to accept even their own returning OFWs. The reality is, for mobile populations, exposure to the virus is real along with the potential to infect others. However, there should be a way to address this concern with inclusive social guidelines that do not stigmatize and exclude them.
Given the series of political upheavals especially in the Middle East, natural calamities, and migration policy changes in OFW-heavy host States, migration sector advocates have been repeatedly warning the public about the country’s capacity to absorb returning migrants in the case of the “big one.”
The COVID-19 pandemic could be that “big one.” Massive OFW job loss will mean OFW families moving from “middle class” or “non poor” to “poor” as remittances abruptly stop. National and LGU response must include the welfare of OFWs and their families which include solo parents, senior citizens, and school aged children. In 2019 alone, these remittances reached $35.1 billion.
The government (both national and local) will have to keep an eye on the occupations that will be hit the hardest: domestic workers, cruise ship workers, hotel workers. The government must also anticipate that the demand for healthcare workers abroad will increase, and this will further burden our already tapped out healthcare system.
Given our highly mobile population, the transmission of any disease will always be “international” and never just “local.” This means that our public health system must be equipped to care for both permanent and mobile populations.
The COVID-19 crisis reveals a break in the “OFWs as new heroes (mga bagong bayani)” discourse because it asks the Philippine State to genuinely assist these OFWs as part of the larger Philippine population, rather than “reward” them for their service to the country. They are returning, their situation is vulnerable, and they are ours.
CRISIS GOVERNANCE: FLEXIBLE, NOT DRACONIAN
Draconian measures do not equate to strong crisis response.
Crisis governance is often equated with giving governments the license to implement draconian measures even at the expense of democratic checks and balances and democratic rights.
In the context of a crisis, decision making stakes are evidently higher. The expectation for government to put forward a novel policy and strategy immediately is unavoidable.
Some scholars (see Martin, 2013), suggest that flexible governance has been proven to be more effective than command systems in times of crisis. This means that “there are methods for making and implementing decisions affecting entire communities in ways that enable rapid adaptation to new situations.” This kind of governance, Martin further claims, requires “flexible technological systems” and is based on “participation, high skill levels, robust debate, and mutual respect.”
This is reflected by evidence from an earlier outbreak (the SARs experience in Singapore) that highlights coupling “fast moving” social policies that required adherence with winning public support as necessary to effectively communicate the urgency of the task at hand (Yan, Pang and Cameron, 2006). The article asserts that the policy of strict regulation on patients, caregivers and medical practitioners was implemented alongside financial relief in this sector: subsidized hospital rates and drugs for patients; and paying for medical costs of the medical practitioners in recognition of their frontline role in the crisis.
During crisis moments, the challenge to governments, including our own, is to direct citizen participation towards critical thinking, innovation, and cooperation — not to suppress it. Change will not come from those who govern alone. Crisis governance also requires governments and citizens to be guided by data and not by alarmist or baseless assumptions. Moreover, governments must be strategic in communicating concerns and decisions to its various publics.