Insights from BusinessWorld Virtual Economic Forum’s
panel discussions shed light on next steps toward recovery

By Adrian Paul B. Conoza, Special Features Writer

In the past months since the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) impacted the economy, individuals, organizations, and governments have been trying to make sense of all the downturns the pandemic has brought.

As the Philippine economy gradually proceeds into the new normal, it is vital for organizations, businesses, and stakeholders to look into the next steps the country should make in responding to the pandemic’s widespread implications.

During the BusinessWorld Virtual Economic Forum held on Nov. 25 and 26, two panel discussions have brought a clearer picture on the current situation and the outlook ahead — formed by insights from experts and leaders representing medical, nongovernment, public, and private sectors.

The Conversation Panel on the first day, with the theme “Responding to the Pandemic,” gathered insights from Karl Kendrick T. Chua, Acting Secretary of National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA); Dr. Edsel T. Salvaña, director of Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at National Institutes of Health-University of the Philippines Manila (NIH); Dr. Selva Ramachandran, resident representative of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Philippines; Michael Peiyung Hsu, representative of Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in the Philippines (TECO); and Guillermo M. Luz, chief resilience officer of Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation (PDRF).

The CEO Panel, on the other hand, had Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, chairman and CEO of Ayala Corp., and Doris Magsaysay-Ho, president and CEO of Magsaysay Group of Companies conversing on “Valuable Leadership and the Country’s Road to Recovery.”

Sustaining, improving the response
Sharing the government’s response to the economic implications of the crisis, Mr. Chua of NEDA pointed out that the country’s economy, grounded on positive macroeconomic fundamentals before COVID-19, is strong enough to recover if it is enabled to do so.

The Secretary also stressed the economy’s flexibility to the policies, as shown by the GDP falling by 16.9% in the second quarter and then contracting by 11.5% when lockdowns were eased. The unemployment rate, meanwhile, was observed to have slowed down to 10% upon the general community quarantine (GCQ) from the 17% at the height of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).

In moving towards recovery, Mr. Chua continued, the key is to manage the risks instead of avoiding them. Opening the economy as safely as possible serves as the main intervention, he added, yet this should be coupled with additional policy support, such as the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives Reform (CREATE), Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer (FIST), and GFIs Unified Initiatives to Distressed Enterprises for Economic Recovery (GUIDE) bills, as well as the fast-tracking of the National ID System.

“It is not really a debate between economic recovery and health, but about saving people’s lives both from COVID and other cases such as hunger and diseases is the priority of the government,” Mr. Chua added.

NIH’s Dr. Salvaña, meanwhile, recalled the actions taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the country, especially the lockdowns imposed since March.

According to the NIH director, the lockdown was implemented lest the country’s healthcare system, with its low capacity, might become overwhelmed. While the lockdown helped control the spread, however, cases surged when the lockdown was relaxed to GCQ, coupled with the multiple introduction of the disease from returning OFWs and the introduction of a potentially more infectious variant of COVID-19.

Nonetheless, the current situation shows the curve apparently flattening, with the r-naught at less than one, the positivity rate going down, and the death rate relative low compared to other countries.

The director looks forward for the case numbers to remain manageable if minimum health standards are still observed. He also expressed high hopes for a much improved case management that leads to high survival rates even for severe cases. “As long as we keep our hospital system from being overwhelmed, we will continue to do better in managing these severe cases,” Dr. Salvaña said.

UNDP Philippines’ Mr. Ramachandran stressed that inequality and poverty should not be overlooked in the continued response to the pandemic.

“Inequality and poverty became visible to the naked eyes as never before,” Mr. Ramachandran pointed out. “It revealed that there are those who have access to healthcare and those who don’t. There are those who can work from home and those who can’t.”

Mr. Ramachandran also recognized that fighting COVID-19 requires strong multi-sector collaboration and whole-of-society approach. “No one can beat the virus on their own. None of us is safe until everyone is safe,” he said.

The representative added that UNDP, in close partnership with its partners and other stakeholders, is developing integrated solutions to uproot inequalities, renew social contract, and rebalance nature, climate, and economy.

The main way UNDP does this is by optimizing digitalization and innovation to help speed up and scale transformations, according to Mr. Ramachandran.

Moreover, he encourages stakeholders to put women at the “center of the response plan”, as well as include green recovery in the process.

Sharing Taiwan’s quick and successful response to COVID-19, Mr. Hsu of TECO noted that the country has long learned from its experience with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003.

According to the representative, the epidemic caused their government to formulate relevant policies such as the establishment of the Central Epidemic Command Center. Mr. Hsu also noted the country’s comprehensive measures upon the activation of the command center last January, which include border control, stockpiling of medical supplies, and increased production of necessary equipment, and applying advanced ICT research and development for tracing efforts.

What Mr. Hsu finds vital in their response, nonetheless, is their government’s transparency in information that has drawn trust from citizens. “The government of Taiwan cannot do it alone. It’s the people who trust our government and are willing to cooperate and share the burden… to win the battle together,” he said.

Mr. Luz of PDRF highlighted the need for stronger public-private partnerships (PPP) in what he observes as a balancing act between saving lives and saving livelihood. “We felt that as a country we needed to put the all the resources at the country’s disposal to work on addressing the problem,” the PDRF official said.

It was through this partnership, he continued, that the country’s testing capacities have been improved, from an initial estimate of 4,000 to over 30,000 tests per day.

With the recent developments in COVID-19 vaccines, Mr. Luz also sees PPPs playing a large role, especially with the complex challenges of handling and transporting. “When we take a look at the volume the delivery date and the distribution challenges across the country, we’re going to need some PPP effort to be able to handle vaccines,” he said.

Leading towards recovery
The second day’s CEO Panel shed light on what some of the country’s top company executives thinks should be the next steps for businesses and the country in general towards recovery.

Mr. Zobel advises the business community to have a ‘hyper-strong sensitivity’ to the changes occurring in their stakeholders as a starting point towards steering an organization’s stability and growth while making meaning impact.

Moreover, he proposed a ‘stakeholder-centric and discovery-driven’ approach to planning, which involves rethinking how companies reach their customers, redesign how they work and operate, and revisiting and renewing their commitment to the broader communities around them.

He stressed that companies these days need to support the community around them, especially those left behind due to lost jobs, meager incomes, and lack of access to utilities like the Internet. “We all need to share in the adversities so we too can benefit from shared prosperity,” Mr. Zobel said.

“We have a golden opportunity to actively reshape the future that is fast approaching. Leading through the unknown requires reimagination, commitment, and discipline, guided by the many signs and clues around us,” Mr. Ayala added.

Ms. Magsaysay-Ho, on the other hand, highlighted the need for companies to remain relevant, resilient, and purposeful — the things that keep CEOs like her awake at night.

She also emphasized the need to maximize “the greatest potential of our people” by cultivating clusters the country excells at, such as manufacturing, agricultural, and services clusters.
Furthermore, she stressed that COVID-19 should compel the country to undergo a systemic change that allows every citizen to benefit from the country’s economic reboot. She expressed fear that amid the disruptions of COVID-19, many will go back to the same normal ‘poor and wiped out.’

“Resilience is in the Filipino heart, but not in the Filipino life. We can however change our mindset to compete, to be prepared, to be productive, to create wealth for our people — [towards] an ambitious national plan which we can rally around so that we truly form an inclusive new normal in the long term,” Ms. Magsaysay-Ho said.