Our world will never be the same again after this terrible coronavirus experience, we say to each other in feverish exchange of breaking news, web links, quotes from the Bible and from whoever it was, and even in the nervous laughter from “joke time” in Viber and other sharing apps. “Do not panic,” some unseen Big Brother continually buzzes in our ears, but the isolation of quarantine cannot but make us anxious for our vulnerability, which precisely the “stay home” orders insinuate. A vaccine has not yet been found that will give full confidence to end the quarantine and social distancing. Medical researchers estimate it will be a year before the testing and certification of the vaccine will be done. Then there are the uncertainties of the changed environment we will step out into, after the “war” with COVID 19 will have been won. Definitely, the postbellum effect will be that people will be more careful, and risk-averse in decisions and actions.
The quarantine has brought families together. Families now have the time to talk to each other and know each other more deeply, than in the rushed comings and goings of tight work and study schedules. In this confinement, erstwhile too-busy parents have subliminally reinforced their ascendancy and acknowledged their primary roles and responsibilities to constantly teach and guide their children of whatever age to be morally upright, harmonious and cooperatively productive in society. Siblings have found exclusive time to bond with one another, if only temporarily reversing in favor of family, the usual more time spent with friends and acquaintances. The Expanded Community Quarantine (ECQ) started on March 17 and will end as extended, on May 15 in the National Capital Region (NCR) including Metro Manila and other selected regions.
Will the psychological conditioning from the quarantine stay in the personal and collective consciousness, a psychologist-friend was asked. Some social behavior and preferences changed in time of the coronavirus, and hopefully there will be more permanent positive changes in mindset and our way of living, reinforced by the scare that COVID 19 gave us, she said. But then again, there will be an end sometime to this isolation and distancing. Will we backslide to the before-crisis easy-going inclinations of the common Filipino — the love of “happy-happy” groupie behavior that keeps working parents longer away from home and the children past regular working hours? Why, in Manila during the quarantine, groups playing pretend-sabong (cockfight) and gambling-card games outside their homes were caught by the policemen, along with others in other places carousing and drinking. It was reported on TV news that there was blatant sharing of quarantine passes, fighting about food rations, and refusal to observe social distancing in some barangays. “Pasaway”, hard-headed and defiant — the coronavirus has not changed them.
And in this time of the pandemic, we think of the over 2.3 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) repatriated or will be repatriated by their host countries, in the scare of counter-infection and in the lockdown in those countries. Perhaps they are the group most affected psychologically and materially in this crisis. In 2019, OFWs sent back $32.2 billion to the Philippines (The Philippine Daily Inquirer Feb. 16, 2019). In 2017, OFW remittances contributed 10% to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to the BusinessMirror of February 14, 2018. The OFWs have sacrificed family for the higher income abroad, and the better life for the children and later for themselves in retirement. There are no jobs to their needs and wants here in home country. Having been raised to at least the lower middle class status by working abroad, can they stay home to tend to family, and downgrade to lower income, in the double jeopardy of losing their overseas jobs and exposing to the virus?
And so we must talk of the middle class in this time of the coronavirus. They are probably the most affected, psychologically and financially because of the loss of mobility and suspended income. The biggest concentration of the middle class is in Luzon, especially in Metro Manila (which has a fourth of them), and neighboring CALABARZON and Central Luzon. In total, these three regions have more than half of the middle class. Likewise, the viral contagion is highest in these places, and thus the quarantine has been extended and some really contaminated areas placed under total lockdown, like Sampaloc, Manila. The congestion in these regions has been blamed in the contact-tracing for the rapid infection spread and deaths. No, the disciplines of the quarantine can hardly teach the middle class patience and forbearance, as they feel like the neglected middle child in the family who must compete for attention and survival.
The poor will always have priority, in the subsidies set up by the government to alleviate the hardships in the quarantine. Food baskets and cash have been distributed regularly by the barangays to the registered poor in their community. The informal settlers (squatters) in Metro Manila are prone to infection because of the cramped space where some lie five-abreast in a makeshift room no bigger than a parking slot of 12 square meters, as a TV clip showed. Perhaps the government should take this opportunity of the quarantine and the lack of jobs to relocate the informal settlers out of Metro Manila and do the food subsidies there while government think-tanks quickly develop small livelihood and backyard-garden income generation.
On Friday, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez announced that P352.7 billion for the P4.1 trillion budget has already been used for the COVID response. Cash from savings is available, but proper authority is needed to take from what is budgeted, and what remains of the budget will have to stay earmarked for the infrastructure projects under the Build, Build, Build program. Staying with the plans and strategies made before the COVID crisis will create jobs and business opportunities which fall into place with the post-COVID economic recovery strategy, newly-installed National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Secretary Karl Chua explained on national television.
Of course our leaders are worried about the impact of the quarantine on business and industry, on labor and employment, and on the financial wherewithal of managing the crisis. Of course the government is focused on economics, because that will determine society’s well-being and the common good.
But perhaps it would do well to seriously address social complications from the pandemic, of the following rising concerns:
The repatriation of the OFWs and the waning remittances will affect GDP growth as the GDPs of host countries and the whole world economy suffers from the coronavirus. How do we harness the potentials of some two million OFWs for other productive activities? At least provide alternative opportunities here for them.
Can we lessen dependence on consumer-spending driven economic growth, in this time when the middle class, the majority consumers are threatened by their own survival and maintenance of standards in the recession? Perhaps personal loans and credit card usage could be tempered with more formidable (higher) interest and default rates. There has to be personal savings, in a healthy economy.
Manufacturing and Agriculture are sectors neglected in the ready-money earned from services and tourism. But we have seen that services and tourism are the first to flounder for low demand in economic downturns. Perhaps the NEDA could draft a revised medium term plan, in the after-COVID scenario, that will focus on the manufacturing and agriculture sectors.
Finally, the proposal of Senator Bong Go to offer incentives for persons and businesses to relocate to the provinces is timely, as highlighted by the more virulent COVID in the NCR/Metro Manila and neighbor regions. This relocation to the provinces has already been thought of in almost all past administrations, but never implemented.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.