Government by improvisation

When made public, Resolution No. 62 of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) provoked the curiosity and, worse, the skepticism of Netizens in social media. Few saw the need for it and attributed it to the sinister plot of further extending the reach of the already vast powers of the Duterte regime.

The resolution empowers the Cabinet to oversee the way the local governments of those communities that have a high rate of COVID-19 transmission have been addressing the problem. Those areas are the National Capital Region (NCR) and the provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal, where, according to the resolution, the members of the Cabinet, who also sit in the IATF, are expected to “provide stronger support to local government units with areas identified with (sic) high community transmission” by “strictly monitor[ing] health system performance, critical care capacity, and stringent compliance to (sic) surveillance, isolation and treatment protocols.”

There are at least four unstated assumptions in the resolution text. The first is that there is a national plan to deal with the pandemic. The second is that local government officials have either not been doing enough to contain the contagion, or have not been implementing the policies and approaches mandated by the plan to effectively address the COVID-19 problem.

The third assumption is that what local governments have been doing and have instead prioritized are programs of their own making. The last is that every member of the Duterte Cabinet is familiar with the plan and will see to its implementation once they immerse themselves in the affairs of the local government units (LGUs) of the NCR and its four outlying provinces.

Unfortunately, the existence of such a national response plan is either one of the best-kept secrets of the government, or a myth and an illusion. The spiraling increase of cases of Filipinos afflicted with the COVID-19 virus has given the Philippines the dubious distinction of being first in Southeast Asia in number of infections despite the country having been under lockdown for the longest period. It feeds the widespread suspicion that no master plan was ever devised or even contemplated when the first cases were discovered last February, and that the government has been reacting to problems as they occur rather than anticipating them. The country would have otherwise returned to some degree of normalcy by now, which other governments, such as those of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, have demonstrated is possible. Their national plans of action made the numbers of people infected in those and other countries negligible compared to those of the Philippines.

Some LGUs have indeed been improvising their own responses to the pandemic. But that they have been forced to adopt this or that program of action in dealing with the impact of the contagion in their communities suggests that they have pretty much been left to their own devices because of the absence of clear guidelines from the national government. Among those programs are the barangay-by-barangay, sitio-by-sitio, street-by-street lockdowns and other initiatives they enforce whenever COVID-19 cases in their localities are reported.

But one of the more compelling pieces of evidence of the absence of a master plan is, among others, the national government’s hasty return-to-work order, which it issued while hardly making any provision for the support services needed, such as transportation. The most number of infections is also occurring among those who have resumed working. In reaction, the government is only now requiring face shields as well as face masks to be worn at work and other places.

There is the equally precipitate order by Mr. Duterte to immediately repatriate dismissed Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) from where they were working abroad back to their communities in the Philippines. It was issued regardless of the possibility that those who may have contracted the disease but are asymptomatic can infect their family members and neighbors.

The consequences have only been short of disastrous. The spread of COVID-19 in previously contagion-free areas in the Philippine countryside is in fact being attributed to that decision and to the equally foolhardy “return to the provinces” scheme concocted by Duterte associate Christopher “Bong” Go that the regime is also implementing.

All these make Resolution No. 62 one more reactive attempt to curb the rate of increase in the number of people infected with the virus. Its mandate is similar to what has been previously tried, among them the government response to the increase in the number of infections in Cebu City last June.

When the number of infections surged there, President Duterte dispatched Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, supposedly to support the local government but in reality to practically take over its anti-COVID-19 campaign. The consequent decrease in the number of infections in Cebu presumably made the case for the IATF decision to arm the Cabinet secretaries (themselves) with the prerogative to directly intervene in the conduct of the anti-pandemic programs of the local governments of the NCR and the provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal.

Assuming, however, that Cebu’s case is a real success story, the local government executives of the above-mentioned areas could very well argue that what worked there may not necessarily work in their respective jurisdictions. They could also point out that among the LGUs that have succeeded in somewhat taming the contagion and alleviating the suffering of their poorer constituencies are those of Marikina, Pasig, Makati, and, to some extent, Manila.

The first argument is consistent with the primary reason for the passage of the 1991 Local Government Code: that it is not the national government but the LGUs that know best how to address the problems of their communities. That assumption may not be valid in some instances, since whether it is sound or not depends on the competence, honesty and commitment of local leaders. But there is enough evidence to prove its worth in this country, where power has been so centralized in “imperial Manila” that it has retarded the growth of the rest of the Philippines.

Both demand the adoption of a policy of only selective national government intervention in the localities that should be based on a sound and non-partisan evaluation of the success or failure of local government programs not only in connection with the pandemic but also with other issues of governance and national preparedness. There is no visibly sound national plan, for example, to mitigate the impact of global warming on the Philippines that environmental groups have been saying will most certainly be catastrophic. Such a policy should have long been in place, together with the national response plans needed to effectively address the COVID-19 public health crisis and those other national calamities that regularly afflict the Philippines.

Planning for future contingencies has never been any administration’s strong suit, despite the constant threat of natural and man-made disasters against the people of this country. It is not uniquely characteristic of the Duterte regime. But the absence of any sense of urgency that should have moved it to enlist the country’s health and other experts in the making of a national plan to address the pandemic and mitigate its impact seems particularly pronounced. Unfortunately, the lethal consequences of the ad hoc and reactive government-by-improvisation approach are being demonstrated at a time of great peril to this unhappy land and at the cost of Filipino lives.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
August 20, 2020

Featured image from the PHILIPPINE STAR/EDD GUMBAN

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