After 7 weeks of lockdown: Meager cash aid puts households below official poverty line

by IBON Media & Communications

Research group IBON said that 97% of 11.4 million served beneficiaries are barely surviving the lockdown with cash aid that is way below the official poverty line.

Meanwhile, 37% of 18 million low-income households are still waiting to receive social amelioration after seven weeks of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).

The group said that, already so late in the game, the government urgently needs to pick up its pace if it really intends to aid millions of struggling Filipino families.

Based on Pres. Duterte’s latest report to Congress, IBON said that the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged on for too long and is still insufficient, pushing many vulnerable households into deeper poverty.

A total of 11.4 million beneficiaries were reported to have been given social amelioration from various government agency programs.

Of this, IBON estimates that 11 million or 97% of served beneficiaries have received emergency subsidies equivalent to just Php80-119 per day over 49 days of lockdown.

This is as little as just one-fourth (23%) of the very low official poverty line of about Php353 per day for a family of five.

These include 4Ps beneficiaries (3.8 million) that got only Php89 per day of cash aid; non-4Ps beneficiaries (6.4 million) with Php119/day, DOLE-CAMP workers (522,855) with Php102/day; and TUPAD informal workers (254,071) with just Php80/day.

PUV/TNVS drivers and overseas workers supposedly received relatively higher support of some Php8,000 and Php10,000 respectively. However, these are also still below the official poverty line of Php10,727 monthly on average nationwide.

Meanwhile, there are still millions of households that have not received promised emergency subsidies for more than a month-and-a-half. If just 11.4 million beneficiaries were given assistance, this means that 6.6 million or 37% of the targeted 18 million low-income families still have not gotten anything.

IBON said that government’s laggard and militaristic response to the pandemic has left millions of Filipino families struggling to meet their basic needs. Emergency subsidies during the lockdown are not enough.

The government should ensure that all families needing assistance are given sufficient support not just to recover from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 lockdown but also to survive the economic crisis that has set in. #

4Ps – Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program; DOLE – Department of Labor and Employment; CAMP – COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program; TUPAD – Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers program; PUV – public utility vehicle; TNVS – transport network vehicle services.

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

POGOs not an essential sector, only 0.23% of gov’t annual tax revenues

by IBON Media & Communications

Research group IBON said the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGOs) generate minimal income and employment for the country, contrary to government’s claim that it is an essential sector and should be partially reopened.

The group said that the insistence on reopening POGOs appears to be yet another example of partiality towards China.

The public interest is better served by giving more attention to public health measures for when the lockdown is lifted, stressed IBON.

The administration recently announced that it will allow the partial reopening of POGOs while the lockdown is ongoing.

It claims that POGOs are categorized as business process outsourcing (BPO) which is an essential sector due to its revenue and employment generating capacity.

IBON however questioned the administration’s defense of POGOs as an essential sector.

It does not bring in much government income nor job opportunities for Filipinos, said the group.

According to the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), it has collected only around Php6.4 billion from POGOs in 2019, which is not even one-fourth of one percent (0.23%) of the Php2.8 trillion in total tax revenues for the year. The government is not even able to collect the expected Php50 billion in taxes from offshore gaming operators.

Meanwhile, POGO regulatory fees averaging only Php3.8 billion annually in the last five years were a measly 1.5% of the annual average non-tax revenues over the same period.

Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation’s (PAGCOR) collects these fees, and POGOs only contributed 7.6% to its gross income of Php75.8 billion in 2019.

The bulk or 58.1% of PAGCOR’s earnings are from regulatory fees of licensed casinos and electronic gaming sites.

Some 34.1% of PAGCOR’s gross income is from its share of tables and electronic gaming machines.

POGOs also avoided paying franchise taxes, added the group.

A Senate hearing last March, the BIR said only 8 out of 11 POGOs pay the 5% Philippine franchise tax.

IBON also explained that POGOs contributed little to the country’s employment because they employ mostly Chinese citizens.

2020 data from PAGCOR show that more than half or 57.3% of the 188,239 POGO employees are Chinese citizens and 25% from other nationalities; only 17.7% are Filipinos.

PAGCOR has also been touting that POGOs had driven Php25 billion in real estate profits through office space leasing. Its own data however reveal that POGOs are mainly leasing office space in buildings owned by top Philippine oligarchs, noted IBON.

One example is PB Com Tower in Makati owned by Lucio Co. PB Com Tower is home to 31 POGOs and POGO service providers.

Additionally, the Yuchengco Tower in Makati is a leasing space for 16 POGO service providers. The Yuchengco Tower is owned by RCBC Realty Corporation, a subsidiary of RCBC.

It could be recalled that RCBC was put into controversy in 2019 due to its ex-bank manager being found guilty of money laundering in connection with the US$81 million cyber heist on Bangladesh’s central bank.

IBON found that in RCBC’s May 2019 disclosure to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), one of the banking corporation’s independent directors from 2016 to present, Gabriel Claudio, is also serving as a director at PAGCOR.

IBON said that if government is really sincere in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, it should prioritize improving the country’s testing capacity and isolation of COVID-19 cases over reopening businesses such as POGOs.

The group added that improving the country’s health system would have avoided a longer lockdown.

Moreover, IBON said that if the government focused on productive sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing, the Philippine economy could jumpstart faster rather than depending on the piddling contribution of POGOs. #

ECQ disrupts livelihood of 19M: Millions of working people left behind by poor gov’t response

by IBON Media

Research group IBON estimates that the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) has disrupted the livelihoods of 18.9 million working people. Some 7.7 million working Filipinos and their families have not received emergency subsidies and are being pushed into deeper poverty, and that what support has been given has not even been enough to cover the almost seven week-long military lockdown.

The group said that the Duterte administration’s poor response is causing widespread suffering and passing the burden of containment onto the poorest and most vulnerable.

IBON estimates, using 2018 and 2019 labor force data, that 18.9 million working Filipinos or 45% of 42.4 million employed have been displaced by the ECQ. ‘Displaced’ refers to job losses, part-time work, reduced pay, and other disruptions in livelihoods especially by informal earners.

Most of these are: vendors, shopkeepers, and sales persons in the wholesale and retail trade subsector (4.4 million); construction workers (2.7 million); farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk (2.5 million); pedicab, tricycle, jeepney and truck drivers and mechanics in the transport sector (1.8 million); manufacturing workers (1.5 million); and hotel and restaurant employees (1 million). The balance is largely in other sectors especially services.

The government promised to give 18 million households assistance through Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and Department of Agriculture (DA) programs.

The DSWD Social Amelioration Program (SAP) is the largest program, supposedly reaching 18 million, but where beneficiaries of similar DOLE and other programs will no longer be eligible. The DOLE’s programs include CAMP for formal workers (650,000 beneficiaries), TUPAD for informal workers (235,948) and AKAP for overseas Filipino workers (135,720). The DA’s RFFA and FSRF programs target 591,246 beneficiaries.

A month-and-a-half into the ECQ, IBON said that the government has only been able to give emergency subsidies to 11.2 million beneficiaries according to latest data available. These are from the DSWD (10.2 million), DOLE-CAMP (407,3000), DOLE-TUPAD (275,0000), DOLE-AKAP (70,000), and DA (354,875).

This means that, even according to government targets, there are 6.8 million beneficiaries without cash assistance to compensate for the lost income of families or their breadwinners who were displaced due to the lockdown.

Measured against the 18.9 million estimated displaced by IBON, 7.7 million working Filipinos and their families still need to be reached.

The cash assistance given has also been very slow and much less than needed to compensate for the month-and-a-half disruption in livelihoods.

The government’s official poverty line is an average of Php10,727 for the whole country but beneficiaries have been getting much less than this.

According to the president’s 5th report to Congress on the government’s COVID-19 response, the average assistance received is mostly very low: 4Ps beneficiaries (Php4,392); non-4Ps (Php5,771); PUVs/TNVS drivers (Php8,000); workers under CAMP (Php5,000); and informal workers under TUPAD (Php2,611). Reported aid is only relatively large for overseas workers under AKAP (Php10,000) and farmers (Php11,971).

IBON said that working Filipinos are a key force in helping the country overcome and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Duterte administration should give their full support to and aid those displaced. It should immediately remove bureaucratic hurdles to accessing social amelioration and address inefficiencies. It also needs to ensure sufficient funds to cover all vulnerable Filipinos. Also, government assistance should not only be given for the duration of the lockdown but also until households have recovered from weeks of lost wages and incomes, IBON said. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Gov’t should deliver cash subsidies it owes 3.8M poor families in GCQ areas

by IBON Media

The government announced that it will ‘reprioritize’ social amelioration to only the areas retained under the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and will ‘discontinue’ in declared general community quarantine (GCQ) areas.

But research group IBON said that some 3.8 million* vulnerable families still without assistance are at risk of slipping into deeper poverty should the government make the shift.

The group said that government should be sensitive to the plight of all still un-served and now struggling beneficiaries by making good on its promise to immediately distribute emergency subsidies.

The Duterte administration declared that the extended ECQ – previously set to end on April 30 – will be again extended to May 15 in areas classified as “high risk”.

The areas observed to still have many COVID-19 cases are Benguet, Pangasinan, Central Luzon except Aurora, Metro Manila, Calabarzon, Cebu, Ilo-ilo, Bacolod City, and Davao City.

The rest of the country – considered “low risk” and “moderate risk” areas – will be under a GCQ. Face masks and physical distancing will still be required, but work and transportation are expected to re-operate under more relaxed quarantine.  

IBON observed that despite Pres. Duterte being granted emergency powers by Congress, promised financial assistance has not been expediently delivered to the targeted 18 million poor families affected by the Luzon-wide ECQ.

Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) secretary Rolando Bautista said that GCQ areas will no longer receive cash subsidies due to limited social amelioration program (SAP) resources as per National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) recommendation. 

Though the DSWD recently clarified that beneficiaries in the GCQ areas will still receive the first tranche of subsidies, IBON said that overall, government should stop making excuses on top of a huge SAP backlog.

The group said that government should provide humane and compassionate response and it can start by immediately dissolving all bureaucratic hurdles to deliver promised cash assistance to the millions of unserved beneficiaries including those in GCQ areas.

Relaxing activities in areas previously locked down does not offset the six-week impact of the ECQ on the incomes and livelihoods of the most vulnerable families, said the group.

Based on DSWD data, IBON noted, some 1.3 million beneficiaries or one of three target SAP beneficiaries in Luzon GCQ areas alone remain unserved as of April 29.

Meanwhile, 8.4 million households across the country are reported to have not yet received any emergency assistance.

Of these, 4.6 million households are in the retained ECQ areas and the remainder 3.8 million households are under the downgraded GCQ areas by May 1.

Also, some Php50.3 billion in SAP funds have yet to be paid out nationally, Php19 billion of which is for GCQ areas. 

IBON hit government’s indifference to the plight of the poor. The group observed that government was able to afford a one-and-a-half-month delay in emergency aid to its poorest constituents and is now deciding to even ration it.

On the other hand, the government guarantees resources for business-inclined Build, Build, Build infrastructure program and prompt debt servicing.

This is only exposing the Duterte administration’s inclination to scrimp on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable in order to survive COVID-19’s impact while saving the economy for big business.

The delayed response and the move now to even get away with it has only highlighted that the Duterte administration’s approach has only been militaristic more than humanitarian, IBON said.

The nation’s chance to survive the health crisis and the deterioration of the country’s economic crisis as aftermath is even compounded by the need to surpass such callous governance. #

* DSWD SAP data was noted for national, ECQ areas (based on announcement by Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque on April 30, 2020). Nationwide GCQ data for unserved beneficiaries was derived by subtracting ECQ areas data for unserved beneficiaries from national data for unserved beneficiaries.

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

On 7th week of lockdown: 10M worker and informal earner households still waiting for emergency subsidies

by IBON Media

A month-and-a-half into lockdown, millions of workers and informal earners grapple in uncertainty as the government’s social amelioration program (SAP) and Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) aid are failing to reach them, said research group IBON.

Six-out-of-ten or majority of government’s targeted beneficiary households have still not received the promised emergency subsidies while funding for DOLE assistance programs has run out. The sluggish response and lack of funds highlights the State’s continued indifference, said the group.

IBON said that the sorry state of emergency relief shows how even the granting of emergency powers to the president has failed to swiftly deliver promised aid to the 18 million poorest households. This includes millions of workers in the formal and informal sectors who lost incomes and livelihoods under the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).

The latest Department of Social Welfare (DSWD) data shows only 8.1 million SAP beneficiaries were assisted, which means that 9.9 million, or a glaring 55% of the target 18 million low-income households, still await emergency cash aid into the seventh week of lockdown.

IBON said that aid is long overdue for millions, and that the 8.1 million households helped should also be getting their second tranche of subsidies already due to the lockdown extension.

The government’s other assistance programs do not add much more.

As of April 26, DOLE reported giving cash aid to only 345,865 workers, which is just 3.2% of 10.7 million workers estimated by IBON.

Meanwhile, only 259,449 informal workers benefited from DOLE’s cash-for-work program which is just 5% of 5.2 million informal workers.

Only 40,418 PUV and TNVS drivers have received emergency subsidies – with no new recipients in the last two weeks.

The DOLE also reported that just 49,040 affected overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) have been approved to receive Php10,000 cash assistance out of the 233,015 that have so far applied, as of April 26.

The department said that the number of OFWs requesting aid exceeds the 150,000 targeted by the government. The Php1.5 billion funds under the Abot Kamay ang Pagtulong (AKAP) program for this will not be enough to cover all OFWs needing assistance.

IBON also noted that to date, only 354,875 rice farmers or just 3.7% of the country’s 9.7 million farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk have been given cash assistance by the Department of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, only 6,403 employers have been able to apply for assistance on behalf of 130,188 employees under the Department of Finance’s Small Business Wage Subsidy program.

This is just 3.8% of the 3.4 million small business employee target, and actual payout will only start on May 1.

The poorest Filipinos continue to go hungry and fend for themselves amid over-delayed social amelioration, said IBON.

To make matters worse, the Duterte administration has announced that low-income households living in areas where the ECQ has been lifted will no longer receive emergency subsidies.

IBON said with no other means to help compensate for their lost wages and incomes due to weeks under lockdown, many vulnerable families will be pushed into deeper poverty.

IBON said each week under lockdown further exposes the Duterte administration’s pro-big business and militaristic approach in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If it continues to ignore the humanitarian crisis and not genuinely and substantially address the socioeconomic needs of affected Filipinos, many more will go hungry, human rights violations will rise and there will be even more unrest. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Why do we keep on begging China for friendship?

By Rosario Guzman

In the face of the Filipino people’s growing anxieties about COVID-19 and life after the lockdown, president Duterte keeps heaping praises on China.

The Duterte government was reluctant at first to restrict travel and tourism from China and the operations of Chinese Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) because such moves to contain the virus would allegedly hurt China’s feelings. In the next presidential speeches, the government seemed to have flip-flopped from its cavalier attitude towards the pandemic, but it has not stopped uttering assurances to China.

That the Philippines remains to be by China’s side as China battles COVID-19. Or that China will help the Philippines overcome the health crisis and that president Duterte can directly send a personal note to Chinese president Xi Jin Ping. A you-and-me-against-the-world expression of devotion that is repeated ad nauseum.

In the most recent display, returning presidential spokesperson Harry Roque even got a little chummy – referring to the Philippines-China relationship as “BFF” (“best friends forever”), and that naturally China will prioritize the Philippines in giving COVID aid and funds.

It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth as the country continues to grapple with economic uncertainties and government’s lack of direction six weeks into the lockdown.

But is it even valid to cling on to China, or to any other country for that matter, for our survival as a nation post-COVID? Even without COVID-19, it is already insane as it is for the Philippine government to obsessively hold on to failed neoliberal policies and to rely on foreign capital for development. It would take some sobriety to tackle the question, but looking at the global economy and the seismic changes that have been happening is the sensible way to begin.

The world is coming down

China indeed remains the world’s leading merchandise trader and second to the United States (US) in trade of goods and services in the overall. But the slowdown in global trade that has been quite evident since 2016 on the back of a protracted global economic recession is weighing down on the world’s economies and leading traders. This has only been aggravated by the US-China trade war escalating at the end of 2018, which is hurting aggregate import demand, as well as the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic emanating from Wuhan, China at the end of 2019 whose impact on world trade is still unfolding.

World merchandise trade volume had a significantly lower growth of 2.9% in 2018 than the 4.6% growth registered in 2017 that raised false hopes of a return to better days. The slowdown in trade was accompanied by weaker output growth – the world gross domestic product (GDP) grew at exactly the same rate as trade (2.9%) compared to a minimally higher growth of 3.0% the year before.

The numbers turned uglier in 2019 – with the combined effects of the trade tensions in the first half clearly felt and the jitters in the second half over the possible lethal spread of COVID-19 across geographic and economic regions. The slowing world merchandise trade finally declined by 0.1% in volume in 2019. Likewise, in dollar values it fell by 3% to US$18.89 trillion, whereas it registered a 10% increase due to higher energy prices just the year before. The global GDP got even weaker with a preliminary growth figure of only 2.6% for 2019.

Projecting the full impact of COVID-19 on trade, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is looking at a further decline in 2020 by 12.9% in an optimistic scenario or by 31.9% in a pessimistic scenario. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects the global GDP growth in 2020 to fall to -3%, which is a major revision over a very short period. This crisis is going to be far worse than the global financial crisis, the IMF has said, and the worst since the Great Depression.

Palace photo.

China is symptomatic

The world is watching China with apprehension. The country has high demand for raw materials and intermediate goods and serves as a final-stage export platform for global production chains. But even before the number of COVID cases started climbing at the start of 2020, China’s GDP growth of 6.1% in 2019 was already slower than the 6.7% rate in 2018. It was in fact the country’s slowest growth in 29 years.

The National Bureau of Statistics of China reported a 6.8% year-on-year decline in the first quarter of 2020. It is the first contraction at least since 1992.

China experienced a deceleration in merchandise trade volume, from 8.0% in 2017 to its moderate growth of 5.2% in 2018. The value of exports slowed sharply at 0.5% growth in 2019 from a 10% rise in 2018, while the value of imports fell by 2.7%, the first decline in three years. In the first two months of 2020, exports plunged by 17.2% year-on-year, while imports shrank by 4%, amid factory shutdowns and travel restrictions to contain the virus.

China’s trade surplus and capital formation are its sources of economic strength to rise as an outward investor. In 2018, China ranked 2nd globally, next to Japan, in terms of foreign direct investment (FDI) outflows, and 3rd, next to the US and Netherlands in terms of FDI outward stock. But like global trade and the global economy, global FDI flows were in three consecutive years of decline, falling by another 13% in 2018. China’s FDI outflows slid further by 18%, the second year for China, based on UNCTAD data.

China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) reported a lower figure of 9.6% decline in 2018, pointing out that China’s FDI fall was still significantly lower than the world figure of 29% according to MOFCOM. It does not change the general picture, however, no matter how Beijing paints stability. Outward FDI is falling anywhere else in the world, and it is 40% smaller today than its post-global financial crisis peak in 2015.

The China Global Investment Tracker of the American Enterprise Institute, an alternative to MOFCOM data, which tracks Chinese investment and construction around the world with a threshold of US$100 million, is seeing a dramatic fall in China’s outbound FDI of about 40% for 2019 that will be similar to 2011, with Chinese investment returning to a domestic rather than global phenomenon.

The problem is China cannot simply work from home. It has been infected with the unbounded, reckless desire of expansionism – it has to continue going global.

Palace photo.

BFF?

The Philippines is not even among the top 15 trading partners of China. It is also not a significant destination of Chinese investment.

Hong Kong (PRC) receives about 60% (US$86.9 billion) of China’s net FDI, followed by the US (US$7.5 billion), Virgin Islands (US$7.1 billion), Singapore (US$6.4 billion), and Cayman Islands (US$5.5 billion). It is obvious how China uses Hong Kong as an intermediary to take advantage of Hong Kong’s liberalized agreements and competitive currency before investing somewhere else, or of “double dipping” wherein Chinese investors return to the mainland as “foreign investors” and take advantage of additional fiscal incentives.

It also appears that Chinese investors, like many global investors, have sought safe havens such as the Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands as times get rough. Removing these and Hong Kong for the meantime would show that the top 10 recipients of China FDI in 2018 were the US, Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, Canada, Germany, Vietnam, South Korea, United Kingdom, and Thailand. The Philippines does not figure anywhere in the line-up.

On the other hand, some 56 countries along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the Philippines is part, captured 12.5% of China’s total outward FDI in 2018. BRI investment has been particularly pronounced in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Meanwhile in Southeast Asia where China’s state-owned enterprises have particular interest, Cambodia is the favorite.

Narrowing our map now to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Philippines captured 11% of China’s investment in the ASEAN in 2019, which is practically a fair share if China’s investment would be divided equally among the 10 member-countries.

In short, we may be among China’s friends, but we are not the best, and forever has not even started.

On the other hand, among the Philippines’ trading partners, China ranks 4th in terms of contribution to exports value, next only to US, Japan and Hong Kong (which is a trading port of many other countries apart from the mainland). Indeed, China is the country’s biggest supplier of imported goods, accounting for about one-fourth of Philippine import value, which shows a one-sided trading relationship. Exports to China in the first month of 2020 had a tepid 7% increase, while imports from China continued to increase at double-digit rate (16.4%), a trend that started in 2016.

Singapore, US, Japan and South Korea have remained the country’s top investors, with their combined net FDI of US$963.49 million in 2019. Inflow from China was US$106.16 million. Even if we add US$28.69 million (assuming 60% of what is coming from Hong Kong, since not all Hong Kong FDI is from the mainland), China would still come fifth. Surely there has been a dramatic rise in Chinese investments of 1,751%, from only about US$10.77 million in 2016 to its peak of US$199.38 billion in 2018, but net FDI from China has started to taper off and declined by 47% in 2019.

There has also been a phenomenal increase in Chinese official development assistance (ODA) loans from US$1.5 million in 2016 to US$364.9 million as of 2018. But Chinese ODA still pales in comparison with Japan ODA of US$6.2 billion or even USAID of US886.4 million.

In other words, even in un-reciprocated relationships that our liberalized and subservient economy has become so dependent on, China is not even the best master.

What then is the fixation on China all about?

There can only be one reason for China – it is unstoppable. Since building its internal strength and setting its sights on the endless possibilities in the global economy, China itself has been fixated on itself.

Its expansionist momentum has surged in the last two decades, perfecting its “go global” strategy and embarking on its biggest and most ambitious ever BRI as well as Made in China 2025, moving away from being the world’s factory to producing high-technology products and services. Beijing has been aggressive and at the same time cautious in its policy approach, which gives it confidence that it won’t crash as hard as its economic rivals.

It may be recalled that China held up well during the 2008 global financial crisis, compared to the slow recovery of the European Union and the US. Although today is different – China being the epicenter of the pandemic – China does its best to sustain the image of stability.

International observers have also pointed out that Westerners are finding it much more difficult than Asians to overcome the hardships arising from the health crisis. The observation could just be China’s own messaging echoed through its own propaganda machinery. In any case, China is sustaining the narrative.

This narrative has been copy-pasted in the language of lauding China’s ability to deal with the crisis, official restraint on China bashing and discrimination especially on social media (even setting up laws to penalize “fake news and rumors” about China and COVID-19), and loyalty to China to the point of endangering lives, as The Diplomat has observed across Southeast Asian governments. The Duterte administration has submitted to this propaganda line and has been most explicit about the fear of retaliation from China as expressed by none other than the health secretary.

For the Duterte government, there are two apparent reasons. One could simply be self-serving – that the Duterte administration, the most traveled to China, be able to maintain the business deals and transactions with Chinese firms. No matter how loose and small, these are big enough gains for its entourage of businessmen and cronies.

But the second reason is more on economic survival. The Duterte administration has yet to really jump-start its Build, Build, Build (BBB) infrastructure program and to capture the promise of China’s overflowing construction capital. Of the 100 flagship projects worth Php4.3 trillion, China accounts for only 17% of the number of projects and 16.3% of the cost, while only one of these projects is in the implementation stage. The economic managers are torn between revamping BBB and reallocating its budget for COVID-19 and leaving BBB unscathed. The fact remains, BBB is untenable now more than ever.

On endlessly praising China, the Duterte administration may not have really internalized China’s rhetoric, but it is clearly desperate. The Philippine economy is on its fourth year of slowdown, and the economic managers are still relying on foreign capital for pump-priming instead of building our industrial and agricultural core. The Philippine economy is down with the lingering illness of backwardness that has only been aggravated by neoliberal policies, yet government cannot think of a cure other than to be on its knees. #

Duterte govt can end lockdown sooner and help every Filipino in need

by IBON Media

The Duterte administration can end the lockdown sooner and help every Filipino in need. It can raise the resources needed for this if it lets go of its infrastructure fantasies, prioritizes life over debt, and is bolder in tapping the accumulated wealth of elites and large corporations. Not doing any of these means making the people bear the disproportionate burden of dealing with the pandemic.

Funds are available

In their most recent taped address last Thursday, April 24, the president and other members of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases took turns lamenting how little funds there are for responding to the COVID-19 crisis. No one doubts that huge resources are needed. However, using this an as excuse for failing to implement the necessary public health measures against the pandemic and for failing to help millions of poor Filipino families not just during the lockdown but amid the country’s worst economic crisis in decades is completely unacceptable.

Pres. Rodrigo Duterte declared: “Our country comes first.” For this to mean anything, the Duterte administration needs to take bolder measures to raise funds for dealing with the pandemic including letting go of its sacred cows.

Realigning the national government budget away from items that have fallen in priority is a start. However, the finance secretary’s latest declaration that the administration is preserving funds for its Build, Build, Build (BBB) program is particularly out-of-date. These BBB projects were conceptualized and justified at a time of giddy optimism about the economy. The pandemic, global recession, and domestic economic collapse mean that many projects in the Php989 billion public infrastructure program for 2020 are no longer viable and of much less priority than urgent health measures, emergency relief, and social protection.

The finance department’s earlier position that debt servicing will continue unhindered is also out-of-date. The national government is paying Php1.03 trillion to service debt in 2020 – Php451 billion for interest payments and Php582.1 billion for principal amortization. The current crisis however means that millions of Filipino families are at risk not just from the coronavirus but from disrupted livelihoods and loss of incomes. COVID-19 response spending should be prioritized over debt payments, starting with at least moratoriums on US$5.2 billion in debt service to so-called development agencies and supposedly friendly governments. The government’s human rights obligations to its people far outweigh debt service obligations.

The president said that the government will do everything necessary to raise money to fight COVID-19. This should include tapping the huge concentration of wealth and income in the country’s richest families and largest corporations. The 50 richest Filipinos had a combined wealth of Php4,061 billion in 2019, according to Forbes. The 50 largest conglomerates meanwhile had combined profits of Php856.4 billion in 2018 alone.

Much of this wealth and income is more socially useful today spent on COVID-19 response rather than accumulated as personal wealth or used for self-interested business purposes. The Duterte administration can take the bold step of issuing COVID-19 emergency bonds on solidarity terms targeted at these elites. There is also the daring step of reforming the tax system to become progressive with higher personal income and wealth taxes on the richest Filipinos and higher corporate income taxes on the largest corporations. The Duterte administration cannot say it has no money if it is not doing anything to mobilize concentrated income and wealth for socially urgent purposes.

Photo by Joseph Cuevas/Kodao

Lockdown can be ended

Millions of Filipinos are looking forward to the end of the lockdown, especially the vulnerable majority who have gone hungry and desperate over weeks of sparse or non-existent emergency relief from the Duterte administration. However, despite Malacanang’s posturing and government agencies’ reports, the fact remains that the national government is still being slow in putting the necessary health measures in place for the lockdown to be lifted safely.

The government needs to accelerate the pace of health measures for battling the coronavirus. At the same time, it needs to immediately arrest the enormous backlog in socioeconomic relief and assistance for millions of poor and vulnerable households affected by the lockdown.

The coronavirus continues to take its toll. As of April 23, the total number of reported cases has reached 6,981, with 462 fatalities. These include 1,062 infected health care workers with 26 fatalities.

Health experts such as from the UP COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team point out that the epicenter of the virus is the National Capital Region (NCR) and surrounding regions but also that it continues to spread elsewhere and still needs to be contained. The Department of Health (DOH) concedes that it is too early to say if the curve of COVID-19 transmission has begun to flatten.

While experts attest to the contribution of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in controlling the spread of the coronavirus, it has heavily impacted on the poorest sections of the population, especially in Luzon, and the economy as a whole. The ECQ is disrupting 73% of the economy, corresponding to Luzon’s share in the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019. IBON estimates that 14.5 million workers and informal earners have been dislocated. The 7.5 million lowest-income families in Luzon are most in danger of deeper poverty and hunger since they have little savings or means to absorb the shock of disrupted livelihoods.

The lockdown need not have been expanded or dragged on for so long had the government been more efficient and immediately started putting the necessary health measures in place. Yet three months since the first case of COVID-19 and almost six weeks into the lockdown, the government is still ill-equipped to contain the pandemic.

Despite the arrival of donations and test kits, only 55,465 individuals have been tested as of April 22. This is too few, according to health advocates, compared to the potential community and hospital transmission of the virus. There are still only 17 COVID-19 testing centers out of 78 that the DOH plans to install nationwide. Only 7,000 have been contact-traced, which is low compared to the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Quarantine, isolation, and treatment facilities remain insufficient: the health system is not yet ready for when infections and hospitalizations peak in the coming months. Frontline health workers still lack protective equipment. This has already resulted in the Philippines having among the worst infection rate and highest number of COVID-19-infected health workers in the world.

Photo by Joseph Cuevas/Kodao

Unnecessary suffering

At the same time, the government is failing to ensure that all poor and vulnerable families affected by the lockdown get adequate emergency relief. Their rights to food, health, water and sanitation, and social protection are grossly unmet and even violated.

Over 13 million of government’s targeted 18 million low income families have not received emergency subsidies and are going hungry.  Only 264,154 formal workers out of the IBON-estimated 10.7 million workers in the country have reportedly received assistance, and just 235,949 informal earners out of 5.2 million nationwide. Only 353,037 of 9.7 million farmers, farmworkers, and fisherfolk are reported to have received emergency subsidies.

The government claims to have released Php205 billion for emergency assistance. However, it is unconscionable for the government to have created so many bureaucratic barriers before this much-needed aid reaches the poor. These should be immediately removed.

The ECQ will be extended until May 15 in selected high-risk areas including the NCR, Calabarzon, Central Luzon, Benguet, Pangasinan, Albay, Catanduanes, Mindoro Island, Antique, Ilo-ilo Cebu, Davao Del Norte, and Davao City. Other parts of the country considered “low-risk” or “moderate-risk”, meanwhile, have been put under a “general community quarantine”, where aside from ECQ measures, “non-leisure stores” can partially open, higher education can finish the academic year, some construction projects may resume, and public transportation may operate on reduced capacity.

Affected families need expedient emergency relief in the period to come on top of what is due them for the past six weeks.

Making the most-affected families wait a day longer for aid that should have started coming many weeks ago nullifies government’s facade of being resource-capable with supposedly Php1.49 trillion towards its 4-pillar socioeconomic strategy against COVID-19. This amount gives the impression of huge spending but is really bloated by items that should not be counted as a ‘budget’ for the response.

In truth, the government plans to spend just Php366.9 billion with another Php133.7 billion for loan programs and credit guarantees. There is just Php50.7 billion for health response – it remains to be seen if this is enough to address the worst public health crisis in the country’s history.

The balance of Php316.2 billion is for social assistance. Yet this barely covers the Php297.1 billion in emergency socioeconomic relief that IBON estimates is needed for every month of the lockdown, which should include: emergency relief packages for the poorest 5 million families (Php15 billion); unconditional cash transfers for the poorest 10 million families (Php100 billion); wage subsidies for 10.7 million workers in formal establishments (Php53.5 billion); financial assistance for 5.2 million informal workers (Php26 billion) and 9.7 million farmers and fisherfolk (Php97 billion); and emergency support for 5.6 million indigent seniors and pensioners (Php5.6 billion).

Protecting people’s lives is the paramount concern, and the government should do everything necessary for this. This includes ensuring that the millions of families do not go hungry or suffer. It also includes giving special attention to high risk groups aside from the poor, such as the sick, elderly and those in congested jails. It however does not mean setting aside human rights as the Duterte government’s militarized approach is doing.

The lockdown may help contain the spread of the virus but this is at great social and economic cost and will be more and more untenable the longer it drags on. The necessary health measures have to be secured for the lockdown not be put to waste. At the same time, the government must ensure that it is giving enough attention to mitigating the lockdown’s effect especially on the poorest Filipinos. The country must deal with the pandemic, and the Duterte administration has the responsibility and obligation to ensure that this is done humanely and compassionately. The government also cannot claim that it does not have the money to respond well if it is just being blind to what really needs to be done. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Gov’t Php1.5T COVID-19 response strategy bloated, misleading

by IBON Media

The Duterte administration continues to be misleading about its COVID-19 response strategy, research group IBON said.

A closer look shows that the government is not actually spending as much as it claims, the group said. This casts doubts on its real efforts to battle the pandemic, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable Filipinos.

The Department of Finance (DOF) recently announced that Php1.49 trillion would be allotted towards the administration’s 4-pillar socioeconomic strategy against COVID-19. 

The 4-pillar program is supposed to ensure emergency aid to the poorest and vulnerable Filipinos, medical resources to fight the pandemic, fiscal and monetary actions to keep the economy afloat, and an economic stimulus plan.

“The Duterte government is still being intentionally misleading about its COVID-19 response measures – which makes one doubt what else about the COVID-19 crisis they’re being untruthful about,” IBON executive director Sonny Africa said.

Africa noted the DOF claiming on its website that the “total budget” of the 4-pillar strategy is now at Php1.49 trillion.

He said this gives the impression that the government is spending Php1.49 trillion to respond to the pandemic.

In truth, it aims to spend just Php366.9 billion, and allocate Php133.7 billion for loan programs (Php13.7 billion) and credit guarantees (Php120 billion), he said.

The Php366.9 billion includes only Php316.2 billion in social assistance which barely covers what IBON estimates is at least Php297 billion needed for every month of the lockdown, said Africa.

The balance of Php50.7 billion is for the health response and is hopefully enough to deal with the worst public health crisis in the country’s history.

Africa also pointed out that the Php1.49 trillion budget – which gives the impression of huge spending for COVID-19 response – is bloated by items that should not even be counted as part of this supposed budget.

Among these is the Php142.8 billion in tax cuts, deductions and forgone revenues. These are not actually spent even if they are income losses for the government, he said.

The reported Php233 billion in estimated additional liquidity in the financial system from cuts in interest rate and reserve requirement cuts should not be considered spending, said Africa.

It is also not even sure how much of this will actually go to any kind of COVID-related response, he added.

The Php610 billion in additional financing from foreign lenders (Php310 billion) and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas purchase of government bonds (Php300 billion) are also not spending as such.

Africa said that it would even be double-counting if any of this goes to the targeted Php366.9 billion in spending or the Php133.7 billion in loan programs/credit guarantees.

Africa said that the Duterte administration’s inability to properly cost its COVID-19 response measures is a direct result of its still not being clear what exactly its plan is. This despite being nearly six weeks into the lockdown already.

“The government can be honest about this and the efforts it is taking, instead of, almost maliciously, trying to cover this up by dazzling the public with huge figures in the trillions of pesos,” Africa said. #

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Kodao republishes IBON reports as part of a content-sharing agreement.

In the time of COVID: Hello, Earth

By Rosario Guzman/IBON

Today (Wednesday, April 22) marks the 50th year of the commemoration of Earth Day. Environmental activists vow that it will not just be a day but a movement. But in as much as we would want to manifest this human solidarity in a rally and mass gathering, we cannot – we are on our sixth week of a rather militaristic lockdown due to a pandemic.    

Fifty years – a lot has changed in those years, the most significant of which is how people have come to pay tribute to Mother Earth.

I myself remember my own environmental awakening – it was bittersweet. At first there was this desire to commune with nature, which I soon realized to be in a critically degraded state. I shed off that romanticism and embraced the harsh reality that we have to do something about our planet.

The other week while on lockdown, our batch at Ayala Mountaineers (named after the avenue, the concrete jungle) created an FB group to reconnect. In a matter of days, we’ve been photo-dumping old memories of our climbs, of breathtaking ridges, rock walls, rampaging falls, crisscrossing rivers, and crowded summits.

Yes, crowded summits and campsites! You see, we are Batch ’92 – right on the year of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro when there was an upsurge in environmentalism.

Mountaineering club memberships have dwindled since then, not because the mountains and the great outdoors have stopped beckoning lovers, but because even our mountaineering has been put in a proper perspective.

I have learned a lot from activists. They raised the level of the discussion to sustainable development in Rio, forwarded the critique on the manner things were being governed, and vowed to reclaim our common future. Today, the general public have a far more profound appreciation of our planet, which has been expressed in vibrant struggles and social movements.

Profits over planet

Yet, undeniably, we are confronted with the worst ecological crisis. It took Rio another 20 years for governments and stakeholders to talk about more focused political reforms for sustainable development, and another three years to formulate such goals. Yet again, it has been five years since the sustainable development goals or SDGs, we are faced with what can be the worst pandemic, which undeniably has ecological roots.

Are we really this ignorant, ill-informed and lacking in science and technology to reach this precipice? No, it is the profit-motivated economic activities of few corporations and individuals that have vested interest in resisting the reforms that we want to be introduced.

And in the last 40 years, profit-seeking has been facilitated by neoliberalism. We have seen the unbridled utilization of ecosystems in the name of the market, in the name of profits. The systematic onslaught of neoliberal policies that liberalize foreign trade and investment has unfortunately occurred simultaneously with our so-called sustainable development discourse.

Neoliberalism has devastated our environment and impoverished our people, leading to our vulnerabilities to natural hazards and pandemics.

Unrepentant neoliberalism

Scientists point to several environmental changes that have categorically caused the outbreaks of pandemics. For instance, forest clearing for other economic uses has disturbed the habitat of various species and unleashed various pathogens. The loss of ecological integrity reduces our chances for healthy living and capacities to cope with diseases, aside from having itself created new diseases and mutations.

The Philippines is a hotspot of all of these. Deforestation, land-use changes and coastal reclamation are being done to give way to real estate and infrastructure development, industrial plantations and corporate agriculture. Economic activities that undermine ecological integrity such as foreign large-scale mining and the use of coal for energy are being promoted and liberalized. The kind of urbanization the country has is more associated with poverty rather than human development, as displaced and poor rural folk flock to the cities for survival. The Philippines is also among the top five countries that are most vulnerable to climate risks and disasters.

The Philippine environment is critical, because government policies remain to be hopelessly neoliberal. The Duterte administration for instance is centered on the promotion of real estate, construction, infrastructure development, natural resource extraction, and privatization of the commons, to name a few of its unrepentant neoliberal policies.

Fight on

COVID-19 is a health crisis as well as an environmental crisis – both only showing a crisis of the system that we have not yet resolved. This is why when we commemorate this day, we vow that indeed it is a movement. No matter how we put emphasis on the climb, the summit remains the most rewarding part. But as they say in mountaineering, there can always be several approaches to the summit – a gradual meandering ascent or a direct assault. Whichever we choose, as we commemorate this day, we definitely commit that it is going to be a view of a better future. #

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Kodao publishes IBON.org stories as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Emergency relief and COVID-19 response more important than debt payments

by IBON Media

Emergency relief for millions of Filipino families during the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis is more important than mindless debt servicing, research group IBON said.

The government should get its priorities straight, said the group, and seriously consider at least a moratorium on the government’s debt payments.

This will help provide much-delayed relief and financial assistance to the most vulnerable Filipinos affected by the coronavirus lockdown.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez recently rejected the proposal of economic affairs committee chair Senator Imee Marcos to seek a moratorium on debt payments to enable additional funding for the country’s COVID-19 response measures.

Dominguez said the proposition has not been and will never be considered despite the pandemic.

Honoring its financial obligations, he said, is the strongest pillar of the Philippines’ standing in the global community and the reason behind investor confidence in the economy, he added.

IBON executive director Sonny Africa said that the government’s obsession with so-called creditworthiness is blinding it to how a moratorium can help give much more, and much more quickly, to the poor amid the raging coronavirus crisis and its burdensome impact.

“The Philippines is in the worst public health crisis in its history,” Africa said.

“The poor already suffer the worst economic crisis in decades – aggravated by the Duterte administration’s slow response to contain the pandemic, over-reliance on a harsh military lockdown, and stingy relief efforts,” he added.

Africa said that government should stop its wilful blindness to what the people need, which is hindering the country’s ability to stop the spread of COVID-19, build up the public health system, and give relief to millions of Filipinos. At least part of the over Php1 trillion in funds for debt servicing in 2020 can

be used for urgent COVID-19 response instead, he said.

The national government is paying Php1.03 trillion to service debt in 2020 – Php451 billion for interest payments and Php582.1 billion for principal amortization. Some Php285.8 billion of this goes to servicing foreign debt.

The Duterte administration needs to drastically increase spending to respond. It can begin by negotiating with foreign multilateral and bilateral agencies to waive interest and principal payments or even to totally cancel Philippine debt obligations in the face of the pandemic, said Africa.

“The government will be paying so-called development agencies and supposedly friendly governments at least US$5.2 billion in 2020,” Africa said. T

his consists of: US$686.6 million to the Asian Development Bank (ADB); US$433.8 million to the World Bank; US$406.9 million to Japan; US$21.4 million to China; and US$17.3 million to the United States.

Africa said that the government’s narrow-minded debt policy is the biggest stumbling block to a debt moratorium.

“Creditors will always want to be repaid. The government’s job is to struggle for the best possible terms for the country and not to defend creditors’ claims,” he said.

“The suffering of so many proves we are a country in need. The government should stop pretending that a policy of debt relief and debt restructuring is not an urgent option,” Africa said. #