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Hubris and May 2022

VECTORJUICE-FREEPIK

What we are seeing today is the emergence of truth.

There are initial signs of political blunders on the part of the President. We wish they could have been avoided, or reversed, for the good of our country. But his true north might have been lost.

Blunder one is pandemic management. People would recall the President called for a whole-of-nation war against the virus, ruling out easy community quarantines to put the virus out for good.

The people welcomed this move even as the virus was dismissed like a plain nuisance. But he depended entirely on the interagency task force that was virtually clueless in elevating the level and quality of testing and tracing potential for COVID-19 cases, as well as quarantining and treating actual COVID-19 patients.

In February 2020, everybody thought he was bold and decisive when he declared “the response of the people from the initial reports of coronavirus was almost hysterical when there was really no need for it actually.” That was reported together with this quip: “Kagaya ng SARS (like SARS), I assure you even without the vaccines it will just die a natural death.” Seven days later, the President cursed the virus and assured the Filipino people that the government was prepared even for the worst.

But on April 6, when both incidence and mortalities sustained their uptrend, the President changed his pronouncement and claimed he warned our people about the viral threat from the start. “Itong COVID na ito, ito talaga ‘yang tunay na at the start sinabi ko na sa inyo bantay tayo, talagang yayariin tayo nitong COVID na ‘to…” (This COVID, this is really the real thing that at the start I told you we should guard for, it will really hurt us this COVID…)

So far, some 2.1 million people have been infected while 34.7 thousand have died as of Sept. 8 as we swirl in the never-ending cycle of alphabet lockdown.

Blunder two is when the country’s arbitral victory against China’s claims in the West Philippine Sea was dismissed as mere scrap of paper. Worse, the President claimed it’s something that he could throw away in the trash.

We are for strengthening our diplomatic ties with all countries including Asia’s superpower, but for the President to admit he gave it the freedom to fish in Recto Bank suggests he was unmindful of the fact that it is within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The arbitral tribunal actually ruled with finality that our country has jurisdiction over our own EEZ. As retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio T. Carpio argued, it is unconstitutional for the Philippine Government to allow foreigners to fish in the country’s EEZ.

It was not enough. The President himself challenged Carpio to a debate over whether the Philippines could enforce the 2016 arbitral ruling, a challenge that Carpio immediately accepted. The Philippine Bar Association offered to host the debate “to provide a balanced arena fit for two lawyers of eminent stature.” The President backed out of his own dare and instead assigned his spokesperson Harry Roque to stand in.

Blunder three is his perceived attempt to muzzle the media. First Rappler, then ABS-CBN. They have their faults; they have their inclinations. But as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Manny Mogato disclosed to ANC, very few believed that the President had nothing to do with the shutdown of ABS-CBN. He is very popular, his wish is everybody’s command.

As expected, Congress refused to renew the franchise of ABS-CBN on grounds of political meddling, inappropriate program content, even the alleged American citizenship of Eugenio Lopez III. Its franchise expired, the NTC issued a cease-and- desist order on May 5, 2020. Their assigned frequencies were recalled. ABS-CBN could only resume broadcasting through pay-TV and free-to-air A2Z Channel 11 starting Oct. 10, 2020.

This whole spectacle proves the increasing democratic deficit under the President. Some 11,000 employees lost their jobs in the middle of the pandemic last year. The presidential spokesperson insisted information gaps did not exist because both government and private media tried to provide news updates to the general public. Roque did not realize he did not make sense; very few believed what he was feeding the press.

If these are not the early signs of hubris, we don’t know what they are.

Only the truth is the anti-thesis of hubris. Wasn’t it St. Thomas Aquinas who asserted that truth is more powerful than the authority of a king, the influence of wine or the temptation of a woman? But as Umberto Eco explained, “truth often takes a long time to prevail, and the acceptance of truth costs blood and tears.”

What we are seeing today is the emergence of truth.

When President Duterte belatedly joined the presidential race, he cut a big bike-riding, non-traditional political figure from Mindanao. He offered to the people peace from drugs, committed to address corruption, and promised to untangle red tape in the delivery of public services. The electorate owned his agenda and 16 million voted him to Malacanang.

Truth one is that contrary to his initial promise that he would solve the drug issue in six months, the President later admitted the problem was much bigger than he thought. CNN Philippines reported government data indicating 293,841 drug suspects were arrested from July 1, 2016 until May 31, 2021. But some 6,147 were killed in the 203,715 anti-illegal drug operations. Human Rights Watch and other rights monitors, however, believe these numbers could be three times higher.

With barely 10 months remaining in the President’s term, the light at the end of this drug tunnel appears remote.

Truth two is that corruption has evolved as the single biggest issue today against the government. Key departments particularly the Department of Health (DoH) are involved. The Commission on Audit (CoA) found initial evidence that unscrupulous elements in the DoH and the Procurement Service (PS) — Department of Budget and Management leveraged on the deadly pandemic to make billions of pesos. This scandal collateralized the lives and health of our people, many of whom had to fight the pandemic with very little protection.

It was unnecessary for the President to defend his cabinet members and other officials under investigation. He could be accused of transgressing the law, preventing both CoA and the Senate from investigating and drilling down to the bottom of what has become the byword, “plundemic”: plunder in the time of the pandemic.

Truth three is that red tape is still red, meaning it’s hardly moving. The tape seems to have stopped growing but it remains long. It took a pandemic to show that even during an emergency situation, even the rate of vaccination could be subject of red tape itself. If the procedures to secure permits to operate business, or license to drive, continue to be complicated and less than transparent, there would always be a space to make money.

Hubris comes when one least expects it. But it happens.

The President has 10 months to start managing the political and economic risks today. The sudden, unexpected pullout of the GCQ (second most lenient quarantine level) and resumption of MECQ (the second toughest), betrays serious lack of strategic plan for calibrating community quarantines. The recent admission of testing czar Benjamin Magalong that we have yet to organize a centralized health database for testing and tracing puts into question how granular lockdowns can be implemented. Lives are at stake. Business noise is getting louder.

The economic situation appears no better.

Quarter on quarter, real GDP for the second quarter actually shrank, a mirror image of the prolonged health lockdown motivating economic inactivity and therefore, contraction. With more demand for COVID-19 and output-stimulating public spending, the government may find itself further sinking into more debt. We are running out of good assets to dispose of to help keep fiscal sustainability. Many corporates are losing, many banks are not lending.

The judicious design of the 2022 budget, stripped of all fat, is crucial.

Translation of the economic narrative is straightforward. While the latest unemployment rate dropped, the labor force participation rate also declined by about three million. All in, we have more people without jobs: those who lost their employment plus those who dropped out of actively seeking jobs. More families will feel they are poorer. With the latest inflation for August at almost 5%, poverty will be rising; inequality will be worse.

While truth takes time to set in, the reality of these results represents matters seen and felt by the Filipino people. They may read what the trolls write, but they will remember what happened to them during this pandemic. The momentum could be hastened.

This is not good for May 2022.

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.

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