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Hatid Probinsya and Balik Probinsya, more harm than good?

by Casey Salamanca

The national government’s program of sending people back to their hometown recently came under fire for spreading COVID-19 in the provinces. For example, Tanauan town and Baybay City in Leyte each recorded their first respective confirmed COVID-19 cases last May 28. Both confirmed cases were among the first and so far only batch of beneficiaries of the Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-asa Program (BP2). Meanwhile, in the war-torn city of Marawi, nine confirmed cases are beneficiaries of the Hatid Probinsya program.

BP2 and Hatid Probinsya

BP2 is a pet project of President Duterte’s long-time trusted aide and now Senator Bong Go. Executive Order 114, which enabled the said program, came two days after the Senate adopted Go’s resolution urging the executive department to formulate and implement a Balik Probinsya program.

BP2 is a “long-term program of the government intended for Metro Manila residents who want to go home to their provinces for good”. It reportedly aims to decongest the National Capital Region (NCR) and is mostly targeted at people from urban poor areas. It is also packaged as “redistributing wealth” by bringing development to the countryside.

According to BP2’s website, the first batch was composed of 112 individuals from the province of Leyte. Leyte Governor Dominic Petilla said that most of them are workers who lost their jobs due to the Luzon-wide lockdown. BP2 has three phases of intervention, namely short-, medium-, and long-term.

The short-term intervention provides beneficiaries transport, cash assistance of Php15,000, and livelihood opportunities. All government programs, activities or projects with funding will be adapted for the program.

The medium-term intervention involves projects or programs for implementation after the lockdown and lifting of travel restrictions. This includes establishing new special economic zones in Visayas and Mindanao, among others. The long-term plan includes passing of laws deemed important for rural development.

The program’s goals look good on paper but its pretentious character is exposed by the absence of concrete plans for strengthening rural production. Beyond the program’s promises, what work will people going back to their hometowns really have?

Likely not much, because the program’s vision of developing the countryside is still under the framework of neoliberalism which continues to destroy the country’s agricultural sector. The special economic zones the program envisions to build will, if anything, just cater to the needs of foreign capital but with scant domestic linkages and contributions to national development.

The long-term plan includes the passage of the Duterte administration’s priority bills like the National Land Use Act and giving tax incentives to tourism industries – both have the potential to hasten land conversions. Even legislation supposedly giving incentives for agriculture is more inclined to push for more destructive corporate plantations. There is also the self-serving political logic and push for shifting to a federal system through Charter change.

On the other hand, Hatid Probinsya is intended to help individuals stranded in Metro Manila by quarantine travel restrictions go back to their home provinces. This includes overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). The program arose after reports of thousands of OFWs stranded for more than a month in quarantine facilities. BP2 trips have been temporarily suspended to prioritize the Hatid Probinsya program.

Infecting the provinces

In the absence of a mass testing program, BP2 and Hatid Probinsya are turning out to be additional sources of COVID-19 transmission in some provinces. It is a disaster slowly unfolding especially with the healthcare capacity in rural areas much lower than in NCR.

Mass testing means testing all suspected cases whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, testing all close contacts of positive cases, regular testing of all frontline healthcare workers, and testing for surveillance of high-risk communities or vulnerable populations. Testing is crucial to detect cases, isolate carriers, and trace contacts to contain the spread of the virus.

The Department of Health (DOH) claims that its expanded risk-based testing broadens the coverage of persons to be tested. However, according to the Department Memorandum No. 2020-0285, RT-PCR testing is still based on a prioritization scheme.

RT-PCR is the gold standard for COVID-19 testing. In the Hatid Probinsya program, locally stranded individuals (LSIs) are tested only using the rapid test method. Scientists and medical groups do not recommend relying solely on rapid tests to check if individuals are positive for COVID-19. Their results are not that reliable and hence of very limited use in infection control.

The country’s current healthcare capacity is also still not suited to respond to pandemics like COVID-19. It is very much privatized and uneven between regions; thus access is an issue.

As of June 27, the NCR recorded 17,450 total confirmed COVID-19 cases surpassing scientists’ projection of 16,500 cases by the end of June. As of June 26, the region has 2,487 isolation beds, 1,071 ward beds, 569 ICU beds and 879 ventilators dedicated to COVID-19. The 10 doctors per 10,000 population and 12 nurses per 10,000 population in the region generally meets World Health Organization standards (10:10,000 for doctors and nurses). However, there are much fewer physicians and nurses in regions outside Metro Manila.

According to DOH Region 8, there are 499 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Eastern Visayas, of which 68% or 341 cases are returning residents, as of June 27. Of these returning residents, 293 are LSIs, 45 are OFWs, and three are BP2 beneficiaries. Leyte, which accounts for 40% of the cases in Region 8, is the destination of most of the returning residents who tested positive with COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), there are 58 confirmed cases, with the province of Lanao del Sur having the highest number of cases at 35. This includes the nine returning residents confirmed to be COVID-19 positive in Marawi City.

Eastern Visayas has only two COVID-19 testing centers, both are located in Tacloban City. Of the two, one is a private testing center and the other one, the Eastern Visayas Regional COVID-19 Testing Center, is a public facility. BARMM, on the other hand, has only one testing center, the Cotabato Regional and Medical Center, located in Cotabato City, Maguindanao.

The majority of licensed COVID-19 testing centers in the country are in the NCR, accounting for 29 of the 67 total centers. This could be a factor why Metro Manila is the top region with total number of cases—higher testing capacity results in more cases detected.

In terms of facilities, the province of Leyte only has nine ICU beds, 203 isolation beds, 50 ward beds, and 10 mechanical ventilators dedicated to COVID-19 cases, as of June 26. Data from the 2018 Field Health Service Information System (FHSIS) shows that there are only 57 medical doctors in Leyte, including 7 doctors in Ormoc City, 4 doctors in Tacloban City, and 117 public health nurses.

Quarantine facilities in Region 8 are currently running on full capacity prompting the Regional Task Force 8 and local government units to request for a 14-day moratorium on the national government’s Hatid Probinsya program.

Lanao del Sur meanwhile reported 3 ICU beds, 30 isolation beds, one ward bed, and four mechanical ventilators exclusive for COVID-19 cases. There are only 31 medical doctors and 16 public health nurses. In the city of Marawi there are only 2 doctors and 2 nurses.

In the whole region of BARMM, the doctor and nurse ratio per 10,000 population are 0.8 and 3.8 respectively. For Region 8 the ratios are 2.5 doctors per 10,000 population and 6.6 nurses per 10,000 population.

The increase of confirmed cases in Leyte is disproportionately affecting healthcare workers. On June 16, of the 59 new cases reported in Region 8, 22 are hospital workers. Of the 59 new cases, 52 are from Leyte. As of June 27, there are already 94 healthcare workers infected with COVID-19 in the region.

Ill-conceived plan and self-serving agenda

The Hatid Probinsya and Balik Probinsya programs are proof of government’s ill-conceived COVID-19 response. The less able rural areas are now bearing the brunt of the lack of a cohesive response plan that addresses the gross socioeconomic and healthcare incapacity of the country.

The government failed to maximize the three months of lockdown to start the mass testing, tracing of all contacts of positive cases, and isolation and quarantine needed to contain the spread of the virus. It also did not increase the health system’s capacity to treat all COVID-19 cases.

Instead of focusing on boosting the country’s healthcare capacity, the government apparently even used the pandemic to boost the political career of Palace favorites and to push for more neoliberal and authoritarian policies. Injecting a self-serving political agenda undermines the competent health response so needed by the people.

The administration’s prescriptions and practice to deal with the health crisis are not working. This only makes the call for an alternative approach that contains the virus and cures patients, instead of compromising them, even more urgent. #

Health advocates file petition for mass testing

By Joseph Cuevas

Health professionals, workers and women filed a petition before the Supreme Court last Friday, July 3, asking the executive branch to implement mass testing and provide accurate and reliable data to the people on the coronavirus 19 or Covid-19.

Citing the people’s right to health under the Philippine Constitution,  the petition for a writ of mandamus shall compel the Department of Health and other agencies to conduct pro-active mass testing, aggressive contract tracing and effective isolation, and treatment of Covid-19 positive cases to contain the spread of the virus.

The 74-page petition was filed by Citizens’ Urgent Response to End Covid-19 (CURE COVID) spokesperson Judy Taguiwalo; Coalition for the People’s Right to Health convenor Dr. Joshua San Pedro; Bahaghari bational spokesperson Rey Valmores-Salinas; Migrante International chairperson Joanna Celeste Concepcion; GABRIELA Network of Professionals secretary general Lovely Ramos; Drug, Food and Allied Workers Federation-Kilusang Mayo Uno secretary general Debie Faigmani; BPO Industry Employees Network president Mylene Cabalona; Alliance of Concerned Teachers-National Capital Region Union president Vladimer Queta; UP-Pantranco Driver’s Association vice-president Ernesto Lizada; homemaker Marites Arboleda; and K-12 student Via Leigh Hernandez.

The petition is seeks “accurate, timely and complete information with regards to Covid-19 situation including onset of symptoms, history of exposure, co-morbidities, whether the subject is a medical frontliner, data when specimen is collected and actual case validation backlog from the government.”

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, counsel of the petitioners, said that the omission of proactive and efficient mass testing amid the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that a systemic and normalized violation of the right to health engenders the impairment of other human rights and liberties, such as the rights to travel, livelihood or work, education, and access to justice

In a statement, CURE COVID pointed out that many health experts said that mass testing is very important in the country’s response to the pandemic.

Mass testing enables countries to identify the extent of the virus’ transmissions among the populace, the group said.

It added that with honest and prompt information, governments can systematically and scientifically trace, isolate and treat the infected and contain the transmission.

“Unfortunately, the [Rodrigo] Duterte administration has fallen very short of doing this. Last April 3, retired general Carlito Galvez, chief implementor of the National Task Force on Covid-19 (NTF Covid), announced that the government will implement mass testing by April 15. This obviously did not happen, as the number of testing needed to ascertain the extent of Covid-19 transmissions has consistently fallen short of the NTF’s very own targets,” CURE COVID added.

The group also said instead of mass testing, tracing, isolation and treatment, the government heavily relied on a militarist response to the pandemic, putting the country under the world’s longest lockdown that resulted to abuses, unnecessary restrictions and undue curtailment of civil liberties.

According to the health department, 38,805 have been infected that resulted in 1,274 recorded deaths as of Friday. #

The anomaly of transport modernization (Part II)

by Rosario Guzman

Read the first part here:

Government’s misplaced scheme

In many instances, the solution to the complex transport problems of Metro Manila lies in the physics of the problem, in the same way that dealing with COVID-19 requires medical science. But the Duterte administration has simply picked up its pre-COVID proposal of “jeepney modernization” and used the pandemic to justify finally pushing for it, amid protestations by jeepney drivers and the adverse impact on millions of commuters.

The government is a signatory to the Bangkok Declaration on Sustainable Transport Goals (Bangkok 2020) on “environmentally-sustainable” transport policy. This is also in relation to the ADB’s Sustainable Transport Initiative that is ultimately premised on the continuation of “free market” and “inclusive” economic growth. The Duterte government’s accomplishment in fulfilling Bangkok 2020 rests on the jeepney modernization program. Ultimately, this is important for the Duterte administration to attract transport infrastructure investments as well as to push for the sale of brand new, imported, so-called environment-friendly, and modern jeepneys.

Through the Omnibus Franchising Guidelines (OFG) that the DOTr issued on 19 June 2017, the government is requiring the make of the body and engine of the traditional jeepney to be compliant with the requirements set by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB). These requirements definitely prioritize electric jeepneys (e-jeep), while pushing away the traditional jeepneys which need to go through numerous hurdles to get licensed to operate. These hurdles include: upgrading combustion engines to comply with Euro IV and similar emissions standards; complying with the LTFRB-set age-limit of oldest vehicle part; refurbishing and rebuilding that should pass the type approval system test; and still finally going through the Land Transportation Office (LTO) for a roadworthiness test to get registration renewal.

Concerned automotive engineers, scientists and mechanics contest the need to phase out traditional jeepneys and argue that the government should support locally manufactured environmental solutions. They also question the availability of the parts of the imported modern jeepneys in case of repairs, unlike with the traditional jeepneys that can be replaced easily. They also claim that the body engineering of the modern jeepneys is not suited to Metro Manila’s narrow roads and more prone to accidents. Environmentalists have also criticized the government’s going electric or Euro IV as hypocritical when its own energy program is reliant on coal and other fossil fuels.

But the OFG just keeps on narrowing the chances for traditional jeepneys to survive. The OFG also requires a fleet size of 15 units for any type of PUV for six months for new routes, which prevents small operators from applying for new franchises. Actually, even medium-scale operators – if they exist – are constrained and marginalized under the modernization program. The modern jeepney costs about Php1.6 million to as high as Php2.5 million, which means that an operator needs at least Php24 million to get a franchise.

The DOTr has stated that the government is not phasing out jeepneys but simply modernizing. However, the government plays with words. The jeepney modernization program will ultimately kill the livelihoods of thousands of jeepney drivers and complete the corporate capture of the ‘last-mile’ resort of millions of Filipino commuters.

Still pushing for Build, Build, Build and foreign ownership

The Duterte administration is also not compromising its Build, Build, Build (BBB) infrastructure projects, despite their questionable viability even before COVID-19 struck and their diminishing relevance now. Of the 100 infrastructure flagship projects (IFPs) worth Php4.3 trillion, 73 are for transport and mobility. The government does not have plans to strengthen economic production so the projects will just end up reinforcing a service economy dependent on import-export trade, foreign investments and tourism. Much of the construction materials used are even imported rather than produced locally.

The transport sector is reflective of how the government has lost its capacity to govern and manage public services because of privatization. This raises questions therefore on government’s absorptive capacity for such a grand infrastructure program. Four years into the ambitious BBB, there are only two (2) completed and nine (9) ongoing projects to date. The Duterte administration has even increased the IFPs from 75 to 100 to make BBB “more feasible”. But it appears that only 38 projects will be finished by the end of its term.

The future of BBB in the time of COVID-19 is precarious. But like a beaten beast, the Duterte administration refuses to yield. The pandemic is posing serious challenges to the continuation of BBB, apart from the program’s innate weakness of simply being aimed at attracting foreign investments and momentarily stimulating a slowing economy.

The most obvious challenge for the construction industry is physical distancing because  masses of workers need to gather to finish a project. The IATF suspended construction at the start of the lockdown but later allowed it, while passing on to the construction companies the responsibility of ensuring that workers comply with health protocols.

The next challenge is how travel restrictions and physical distancing will certainly dampen transport, travel and tourism businesses, and foreign trade and investment for a long time. These are the sectors that BBB wishes to be relevant for – but they are less and less important for the economy’s survival in the time of COVID-19.

Another challenge is the commercial viability of the projects on which they are all premised. Instead of catering to genuine public service, the completed projects are designed to be run by private transport corporations who will collect user-fees for their profitability and sustainability. The most expensive BBB projects are mass commuter railways whose viability depends on expensive fares that will be beyond the reach of the majority of the poor and working people.

But the greatest challenge is how BBB’s socially inappropriate orientation can be shifted to support the proper health response to COVID-19. The pandemic has revealed how weak our health system is – lacking facilities and equipment, lacking health personnel, and even lacking the means to transport health personnel. Not a few health frontliners have had fatal road accidents biking to work due to lack of transport support from the government. There is not even a single health infrastructure facility in the IFP lineup. The administration has made pronouncements that it would reorient BBB to respond to the health crisis but has yet to release a new IFP list.

Meanwhile, one priority legislation of the administration is the amendment of the Public Services Act (PSA). On March 10, just before the lockdown, the House of Representatives passed on final reading House Bill (HB) 78 to amend the PSA. It is now at the Senate for deliberation and approval. These amendments include narrowly defining public utilities to bypass Constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership. Sectors considered public services, transportation included, can be opened up to complete foreign ownership. This further undermines public interest and national development. The PSA amendments will pave the way for the full foreign ownership of the mass transport system and government’s eventual surrender to private transport and transport infrastructure corporations.

The right direction

The Duterte government can address the transport crisis in the time of COVID-19 and in fact can look at the pandemic as an opportunity to overhaul the system. The health protocols may be followed indeed if only the government recognizes and addresses the transport crisis in a scientific manner.

There should be a first-step long-term modal shift from road to rail. The government can start by upgrading and adding rolling stock and rails to the train system. The corporations and officials of government agencies who forged lopsided privatization contracts should be held liable for poor service including breakdowns and accidents. The Philippines is among the first countries in Asia to have an urban rail system and has a long history of government running rail transport systems. These assets can be nationalized again and returned to public control. Rail transport can then be central to urban planning as well as to the dispersal of economic activities to the rural areas.

An efficient rail transport system, not to mention fully linked and accessible, will be the basis of an equally efficient route rationalization plan for PUBs and PUVs. The government should seriously conduct its own study to identify where the mass of commuters can have the most optimal travel time, including number of stops, from their workplaces to their homes. This should also include designation of walkways and bike lanes. It should not rely on self-interested privatization stakeholders to make such studies.

For a route rationalization plan to be truly systematic, PUBs and PUVs along with rail should be publicly run. Government can start by organizing PUBs and PUVs into cooperatives rather than allowing only single or corporate proprietorship of large fleets. It can also incentivize cooperatives to improve their service and compliance. Then, government can move on to careful consolidation of fleets through joint ventures and eventual nationalization. Such crucial steps will finally make PUB and PUV modes more economical and fares more affordable.

The DOTr is proposing to introduce service contract arrangements with private transport operators for the “new normal”. It also aims to shift from the “boundary system” to daily fixed wage for drivers and conductors so they can have steady incomes regardless of reduced ridership. This sounds acceptable, especially if we consider that transport groups have long been clamoring for government to abolish the “boundary system” to avoid competition-driven stresses, road hazards, and transport unpredictability.

However, the DOTr proposal remains outside the vision of living wages for transport workers, promoting their welfare and strengthening their unions, subsidizing commuters and controlling fares, and diminishing competition among the private contractors with stronger public control. In short, the current proposal should be within the framework of nationalization, lest it end up being another privatization contract.

The proposal is welcome if it is not being done in the context of the government’s jeepney modernization program. The Duterte administration cannot even give sufficient social amelioration to displaced drivers and conductors during a pandemic.

Moreover, government should once and for all restrain the explosive private car sales that defies all public mass transport logic. These just give the automotive corporations maximum returns on their businesses.

Finally, the pandemic gives us the vast opportunity to rethink sustainable development perspectives. The need for agrarian development and national industrialization cannot be overemphasized. But the government can start with arresting the anarchic building of offices especially for business process outsourcing and online gambling, shopping malls, hotels and leisure structures, residential and private subdivisions, and condominiums. Metro Manila’s urban development Is geared to increasing real estate profits and the wealth of the country’s economic oligarchs at the expense of public mobility and welfare.

Government can start by planning an economy that genuinely addresses severe inequalities existing pre-COVID-19 that, without corrective steps, will persist even far beyond. #

Ang sinapit ng mga drayber

“Dati, kami ang kinakawayan. Ngayon, kami ang kumakaway [para mamalimos].”–Joel Caligayan, tsuper ng jeep biyaheng Rosario-Cubao

The anomaly of transport modernization (Part I)

by Rosario Guzman

The transport chaos on the first day of the less restrictive general community quarantine (GCQ) was painful to watch. With limited public transport, thousands of Metro Manila commuters eager to recover lost jobs and incomes were practically left on their own to figure out how to get to work.

Department of Transportation (DOTr) secretary Arthur Tugade said that the government has “concrete plans” for GCQ. He also had to say that the government is not “sacrificing the people” just to revive the economy, because that was what it seemed.

The recommendation by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) to transition to GCQ was apparently based more on the compulsion to reopen business than on categorical facts of virus containment. The Duterte government was also reportedly already “out of funds” for socioeconomic relief.

The government once again resorted to the military. The military and police deployed trucks and cars to ferry the stranded passengers, breaking distancing protocol and betraying government’s lack of preparedness. Then, the usual victim blaming – the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and Malacañang blamed commuters for the mayhem. Then, the DOTr made a U-turn from its initial pronouncement and said that it never promised to meet the transport needs of the public under GCQ.

For the majority of poor commuters, what is more painful to see now is how the Duterte government, not backed by science, is on the verge of banning the traditional jeepney from the road forever and insisting that modernization is the cure.

If there is anything that COVID-19 has emphasized, it is the fact that the Philippine transport sector is in its worst crisis – a reality that the Duterte administration had repeatedly denied before the pandemic. If the economy has to transition to a genuinely better shape, the government has to address the basic woes of the transport sector. Vice versa, if the mass transport system has to be more efficient, the economy has to be transitioned to a genuinely better one.

But we seem to be stuck in our old problems.

Havoc in the new normal

The DOTr resumed public transport operations in two phases. During the first phase, trains and bus augmentation (which means bus loading and unloading at designated stations of MRT3), taxis, transport network vehicle services (TNVS), and point-to-point (P2P) buses were allowed with limits on the number of passengers. Tricycles were also allowed, subject to the approval of the concerned local government units (LGUs). Bicycles have also been encouraged.

During the second phase, public utility buses (PUB) and modern public utility vehicles or jeepneys (PUV/PUJ) were allowed with a limited number of passengers in rationalized routes. There are currently 30 routes from previously 96 routes for PUB and 34 new routes for the modern jeepneys. The DOTr will open more routes for the modern PUV in the coming days. Meanwhile, the traditional jeepneys remain prohibited from plying their routes unless seen as “roadworthy”. They are also the least priority and will only be used to fill in transportation gaps that arise.

Utility vans (UV) express will be allowed to operate with limited passengers as soon as more modern PUV routes are added. Provincial buses remain prohibited from entering Metro Manila.

The DOTr has also given some “new normal” guidelines, such as wearing of face masks at all times, cashless payments to avoid physical contact, use of thermal scanners, provision of alcohol and sanitizers, use of disinfection and establishment of disinfection facilities, and contact tracing. Costs for all of these are of course to be shouldered by the private transport operators and the passengers.

Apart from the added inconvenience these adjustments bring to the already unreliable mass transport system, there has also been lots of confusion on other relevant guidelines. The Philippine National Police (PNP) for instance prohibits backrides on motorcycles even for couples, yet some members of the police themselves are seen violating the rule. Interior and local government secretary Eduardo Año attempted to get around the prohibition by suggesting the use of sidecars but these are not allowed on the metro’s major highways.

Promoting the use of bicycles has not been accompanied by government policies to designate bike lanes and road-sharing with cyclists for a safe and efficient bike commute. Ironically, even the initiative by bikers’ groups and advocates to marshal the bike traffic along the “killer highway” Commonwealth Avenue was fined by the MMDA for “traffic obstruction”. Some LGUs are also reviving their old bike registration ordinances to collect fees even if they have not yet provided the needed support to bikers.

But the most glaring havoc is in the future of the traditional jeepneys – the ones that do not pass the DOTr’s standard of “modern” – which now hangs in the balance. Jeepneys were prohibited during the lockdown and are now under threat of being banned permanently from the roads in the name of the “new normal”.

The pandemic has obviously given the DOTr the opportunity to push for its “old normal” fixation on a modernization program that it has been proposing even before COVID-19. The modernization program revolves around: the digitization of fare and toll collection systems, vehicle registration, franchising, licensing, and navigation and positioning systems; routes rationalization; the transformation of EDSA; and jeepney phaseout.

It is premised on easing Metro Manila’s notorious traffic and pollution. But it is clearly a business-minded proposal that promotes the sales of private cars, modern PUVs and modern PUBs, and the privatization of transportation infrastructure. It is private transport-centric, while our obvious problem is the lack of an efficient and reliable public mass transport system. Now that the perennial road congestion is aggravated by physical distancing, the solution still seems to disfavor the mass of working class commuters.

Principles of E-R-A-S-E

The country badly needs an efficient, reliable, affordable, safe and environment-friendly public mass transport system. With or without the pandemic and physical distancing, these features of a public mass transport system should be ever-present for real and sustainable development. A strong government role is crucial in this.

Efficiency means that we are transported by vehicles through the shortest distance and in the shortest time possible. This also means less fuel use, less vehicle emissions, less costs, and less traffic.

Reliability means getting the mass of commuters to their destinations on time, with the least difference between the anticipated amount of travel time and the actual one. The crucial fact in reliability is that a large number of people rely on public transportation for their mobility.

Affordability and accessibility mean that the majority of the population who are wage workers and informal earners can afford public transportation and can easily avail of it from their dwelling and work places. This also includes facilities for persons with disability and senior citizens.

Safety includes measures that prevent harm to the riding public and create pedestrian-friendly conditions and infrastructure to reduce accidents and traffic deaths and to improve public health.

Finally, environment-friendly means public mass transport promotes healthier cities and living spaces. This includes the need to use clean and energy-efficient technologies and fuel for motorized transport on one hand, and the promotion of non-motorized modes such as walking and cycling on the other.

The crisis is real

The country’s public mass transport system is far from having these positive features. This reflects how the government has defaulted on its responsibility to ensure people’s mobility, and shows the general lack of national economic planning for sustainable development.

Our problem may be summarized as follows: 1) Mass transportation is left in the hands of private providers, including private rail corporations, bus franchises and single proprietors; 2) Deregulation is an operative principle in the entire sector, with the government’s role reduced to licensing, franchising and the like; 3) There is a lack of urban planning based on rural development and national industrialization that genuinely decongests the cities; and 4) Our mass transport system is corporate-driven, promoting the interests of infrastructure, transport, automobile and rail corporations as well as the profitability of real estate corporations, shopping malls, fare collecting banks, and the rest of the service-oriented and trading economy.

These problems manifest in many ways. The various modes of transportation are not fully linked, and there is heavy reliance on the ‘last-mile’ modes such as jeepneys, tricycles and even pedicabs. There is more road than rail transport, which is an indication of quite an unsustainable and expensive transport system. On the other hand, rail is privatized instead of being government-owned, controlled and operated, thus it is profit-driven and maintained by user-fees.

Fares are high as a consequence of privatized transport. According to the latest available data from the Family Income and Expenditure Survey in 2015, passenger transport for land travel eat up 7% of total non-food expenses of families in the National Capital Region (NCR). This covers fares for railway, jeepney, bus, taxi, tricycle and pedicab rides.

Transport is unreliable, with roads saturated and the quality of rail service poor. This is not to mention that roads are unsafe and rail accidents and breakdowns are frequent. Air pollution in the metropolis is one of the worst in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Lastly, there is a high volume of vehicles on the road. Navigation app Waze identified the Philippines as having “the worst traffic on earth”.

The anatomy of the transport mess

Metro Manila or the National Capital Region (NCR) has a total land area of 63,600 hectares and population of 12.9 million that swells to about 15 million by daytime. It accounts for one-third of the national economy and is home to about one-fourth of the urban population.

Metro Manila has six conferential roads and 10 radial roads. The radial roads do not intersect one another and intersect the conferential roads not more than twice. There are interchanges that separate these roads, but there are still missing sections in these interchanges. There are fully grade separated expressways in the north (NLEX), south (SLEX), and on the southwestern part (Cavitex) that connect Metro Manila to neighboring provinces.

These roads and highways were constructed to lead traffic in and out of the NCR. But lack of national economic planning has weakened job creation, increased rural poverty and displacement, and concentrated economic activities in the NCR. The region is the most congested city out of 278 cities in developing Asia, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The region is brimming with urban blight and poverty.

There are the more recently built Metro Manila Skyway and Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Expressway to decongest SLEX and speed up travel to NAIA, the country’s major international gateway. These are also obviously to cope with the high traffic brought on by government’s labor export policy. The country’s international airports process the some 6,000 Filipino migrant workers who leave the country every day, which is more than twice as many as new jobs created locally.

There are more than three million registered motor vehicles in the NCR as of 2019, which accounts for almost one-fourth of the country’s total. This is a 9.7% increase from 2018 and a 28% increase from 2016, yet the urban space is finite and unchanging.

The latest data for vehicles disaggregated by type is as of 2016. It shows that motorcycles or tricycles comprised almost 40% of registered vehicles in NCR. Utility vehicles follow at 36% and cars and sports utility vehicles are at almost 30 percent.

On the other hand, the latest statistics on units for land transportation services is as of 2012, which shows that PUJs accounted for most of the franchises and units. There were 49,305 PUJ franchises and 50,153 PUJ units, which only shows that jeepney operators are small-scale and own only a little more than one unit. There were no registered PUBs in the NCR at that time, but there are 14,500 registered buses by 2016. If we try to extrapolate the 2012 data, considering that the number of PUJs almost remains the same over time, it means that PUJs and PUBs accounted for only 7.8% of registered utility vehicles in 2016.

The MMDA recorded an average daily volume of 405,882 vehicles plying the main thoroughfare EDSA in 2019, an increase of 22,054 vehicles from the previous year. About 63% of this volume are cars (255,732 units). PUBs make up only about 3% of total EDSA traffic, while PUJs are not allowed along EDSA. There is therefore no statistical basis to blame mainly the PUBs and PUJs for the traffic and transport anarchy in Metro Manila.

Traffic demand is at 12.8 million trips in Metro Manila, based on a study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Public transport accounts for 69% of total trips. The lesser share (31%) is done by private mode, and yet it is this mode that takes up 78% of road space. The traffic volume within the metropolis already exceeds the capacities of existing roads.

In terms of rail, Metro Manila has one commuter line (the Philippine National Railway or PNR) and three rapid rail lines (LRT1, LRT2 and MRT3). It has the least number of rail lines and the shortest urban rail system (51 kilometers) among 11 major Asian cities. The rail lines are not fully linked, only compounding the problem of an intermodal transport system where Metro Manila commuters use a variety of modes of transport and take an average of two to three transfers to reach their destinations.

MRT3 is privately owned like the PUBs, PUJs, taxis, TNVS, P2P, and UV express. The PNR, LRT1 and LRT2 are the only government transportation assets, although the operations and maintenance of LRT1 are privatized. The government does not subsidize fares, and in fact increases fares to attract private contractors.

The rapid rail system is the epitome of the inefficient, unreliable, unsafe and unsustainable public mass transport system in NCR. It is bogged down by frequent breakdowns, diminishing numbers of operational trains, accidents, inappropriate trains, and even non-working elevators and escalators. It is also in the center of corruption controversies.

Where does the commuter figure in all of this mess? The government through all its numerous transport agencies cannot even give a complete picture. An oft-cited study by JICA estimates that 39% of passengers’ trips in Metro Manila and nearby provinces are by jeepney and 38% are by tricycle. This indicates over-reliance on what has only been a coping mechanism for lack of system. Buses account for 13.6% and trains for only 8.6% of the number of trips by public mode.

Per day, LRT1 and MRT3 carry about half a million passengers each, while LRT2 ferries more than 200,000 passengers. Taking into account the number of registered buses and the estimated vehicle capacity by the JICA study, it may be surmised that buses also carry half a million passengers. Using the same extrapolation, jeepneys have the same passenger load.

Privatizing the rapid rail lines and phasing out the ever-reliable traditional jeepneys are therefore not solutions to the transport crisis. #

The last part of this series will discuss how government uses the pandemic to justify pre-COVID programs like the jeepney phaseout and Build, Build, Build that will further aggravate the socioeconomic crisis, and what steps government should take to genuinely address the country’s mass transport troubles.

The Old and New Bilibid Prisons in the Time of Pandemics

More than a century ago, Philippine prisons reeled from a flu pandemic. History might be repeated without adequate healthcare for prisoners and drastic interventions to stem the Covid-19 outbreak.

By Aie Balagtas See/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Will the Philippines repeat the deadly record of the 1918 influenza pandemic in its jails and prisons?

On May 21, Henry Fabro, chief physician of the Bureau of Corrections, said fatalities in New Bilibid Prison (NBP) reached an “alarming” level: five inmates died in just one day.

At least 80 prisoners died from May 1 to May 19. The figure surpassed the prison camp’s average mortality rate of 50 to 60 deaths per month. Most deaths came from the Medium Security Compound, where inmates were cramped after returning to prison amid the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) fiasco.

“The numbers are alarming, that’s why I immediately hired two additional doctors and several nurses,” Fabro told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in an interview.

“We wanted to contain it. So far, we were able to pull the death rate back to two per day,” he added.

In May, 40 out of an estimated 28,000 NBP inmates tested positive for Covid-19. One death was attributed to the highly contagious disease.

The death toll due to Covid-19 rose to 15 in June: 12 from NBP in Muntinlupa and three from the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong, according to the Bureau of Corrections.

Fabro believes half of NBP inmates are infected with the virus. However, gauging the true extent of the contagion – with scant testing that yields “snail-paced” and “unreliable” results – is impossible, he said.

Case in point: two inmates were discharged from the NBP isolation area because the Department of Health said they tested negative for the virus, Fabro said. Days later, the health department said it made a mistake.

“We had to repeat the test and expand it to those they (inmates) interacted with,” Fabro said.

Reliable testing, he said, is important to slow infections in penitentiaries and determine which prisoner should be isolated.

This was not the first time a global pandemic tore through Philippine prisons. In 1918, more than 300 inmates throughout the country died. There were nearly 200 deaths at Old Bilibid alone. Back then, the national prison was right inside the capital Manila, on Oroquieta Street in Sta. Cruz district.

A 2009 study titled “The Philippines in the World of Influenza Pandemic 1918-1919” by historian Francis Gealogo said “almost all of the [Bilibid] inmates became sick of the disease during the height of the epidemic in October and November 1918.”

“Among the 2,674 cases of this disease treated during the year, 71 cases of lobar pneumonia complications occurred with 31 deaths. Almost all of the inmates had influenza, and of those who contracted complications in their respiratory organs nearly half died,” he said.

Gealogo said hospitals were so overcrowded during the flu outbreak that 1,897 Bilibid patients who could not be admitted were treated in their own brigades. “Due to influenza and pulmonary tuberculosis, the death rate for the year 1918 was higher than that of 1917,” he added.

The Annual Report of the Secretary of War published in January 1919 said a total of 378 inmates from four prison facilities died during the pandemic.

Old Bilibid had the most deaths with 193. It was nearly double the number of the previous year, which recorded 107 deaths.

Outstations were not spared. The report said Ihawig Penal Colony in Palawan had 72 deaths, San Ramon Penal Farm in Zamboanga City had 45 and Corregidor Island, 68. In 1917, Iwahig recorded 23 deaths, while San Ramon and Corregidor had four and 39 deaths, respectively.

The Old Bilibid Prison, built during the Spanish colonial regime in 1866, is now Manila City Jail.

A century ago, pulmonary tuberculosis was the chief cause of morbidity and mortality among prisoners.

Today, deaths in prisons are a result of multiple problems, such as poor healthcare services, lack of facilities and lack of government manpower and resources. The NBP hospital inside the maximum security compound, for instance, cannot adequately serve the overpopulated prison, and renovations were put on hold because of the lockdown, Fabro said.

The prisoners’ fear of isolation and hospitalization are another factor, Fabro added.

Inmates are also refused admission in hospitals, even in those run by the government, the official said. A nongovernment organization (NGO) working with prisons made the same observation, explaining that inmates are often turned away because they do not have money and relatives to accompany them. Prison guards are not allowed to accompany inmates in hospitals.

The coronavirus outbreak has made the problem worse.

Fabro said hospitals often rejected inmates by claiming they were operating at full capacity. “Recently, a dialysis patient was refused because the hospital learned that NBP has Covid-19,” he said.

The Department of Health did not respond to queries on hospital policies on the admission of sick prison inmates.

Fabro said emergency cases from NBP and the CIW were not spared of the apparent discrimination.

“Our Alpha Patient [of Covid-19] in CIW was refused by different hospitals in Mandaluyong. After hospital shopping, her relatives found a hospital that accommodated her,” Fabro said.

The Alpha Patient, or the first Covid-19 case in CIW, died on April 27. #

= = = = = = = = =

Aie Balagtas See is a freelance journalist working on human rights issues. Follow her on Twitter (@AieBalagtasSee) or email her at aie.bsee@gmail.com for comments.

Govt jeepney ban has already cost drivers Php78,000

by IBON Media & Communications

Thousands of small public utility jeepney (PUJ) drivers have lost as much as Php78,000 each from three months of mass transport suspensions since the lockdown.

The government has been insensitive and stingy assistance has pushed jeepney drivers and their families into poverty, said IBON.

Their troubles risk becoming permanent with the government exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to keep small drivers and operators off the road to fast-track its jeepney phaseout program, it added.

The Duterte administration suspended mass transport, including jeepneys, when it declared enhanced community quarantines (ECQ) in Luzon then in other parts of the country in mid-March.

Quarantine measures have since eased to general community quarantine (GCQ) in many areas and public transport has resumed in phases.

The first phase started in June 1 and the second is due to begin on June 22.

Jeepneys, however, will still remain prohibited.

PUJ drivers have suffered lost incomes for over three months already, IBON said. Among them are the estimated 55,000-70,000 jeepney drivers in Metro Manila.

For instance, before the ECQ, drivers plying the MCU-Rotonda via Taft route earned an average of Php1,000 per day after a 12-hour shift, net of boundary and fuel expenses.

Jeepney drivers on this route usually worked six days a week.

This means that, to date, they have lost some 78 working days over the past 3 months or 13 weeks of suspended mass transport.

This translates to a total net income loss of Php78,000 or Php26,000 per month of lockdown, said IBON.

Out of work jeepney drivers lose Income with each passing day of transport suspension.

The group stressed that government assistance has been far from enough to make up for these lost incomes.

The social welfare department reports only 36,200 jeepney drivers getting cash aid in the past three months.

Even then, some jeepney drivers only received one tranche of the Php5,000-8,000 of social amelioration and it remains unclear if they will even get the second tranche.

Many small jeepney drivers and operators could become permanently out of work, particularly in Metro Manila, IBON said. 

Transport officials are using the mass transport suspension to force the phaseout of traditional jeepneys by only allowing modernized jeepneys to run.

Under the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB)’s Memo Circular 2020-017 on public transport guidelines in GCQ areas, only modernized jeepneys and traditional jeepneys under a corporation or cooperative are allowed to operate.

This leaves out small jeepney operators and drivers who, unlike big or corporate fleet operators, can ill-afford the costly Php1.6–2.2 million modernized units, or steep fees and requirements to form a cooperative.

They are even less able after three months of lost incomes and depleted savings, if any.

IBON said that the livelihoods of thousands of small jeepney drivers and operators are at stake. Instead of putting corporate interests first and pushing its phaseout program, the government should give immediate cash assistance to drivers and their families who have suffered three months of lost incomes.

It should also support drivers and operators in upgrading or replacing their units to meet safety, health and environmental standards. #

Hidden Victims of the Pandemic: The Old Man, the Jail Aide, and the Convict

Three persons deprived of liberty describe how inhuman conditions in the country’s jails and prisons are placing them at greater risk amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here are their accounts as told to Aie Balagtas See. The images, drawn by Alexandra Paredes, are artistic renderings inspired by PCIJ file photos of prisoners from various jails.

By Aie Balagtas See/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

“All prison detention cells are Covid-free. That is the safest place right now,” Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said in late March, projecting an air of certainty even as the coronavirus pandemic raged. More than a month later, Año’s statement has become demonstrably false.

As of this writing, 716 inmates in city jails throughout the country have tested positive for the virus. In New Bilibid Prison (NBP), the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa, 140 inmates have been infected with the disease, and 12 deaths have so far been attributed to Covid-19. The Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong has recorded 82 positive cases, with three deaths.

The lack of mass tests, the highly infectious nature of the virus, the lack of protective equipment and proper healthcare, and the inhuman overcrowding at Philippine jails and prisons are a potentially deadly combination.

On condition of anonymity, three “persons deprived of liberty” talked to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in May, speaking out against the impossibility of physical distancing and the shortage of resources in prison and jail cells. The “minimum health standards” imposed outside are nonexistent. Worse, there seems to be a lack of empathy from the people who are supposed to take care of them.

Because they are locked away from the rest of society, inmates and detainees in prison and jail cells are the hidden victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are their stories.



We’re dead,” the old man thought when he first learned of Covid-19 infections. Illustration by Alexandra Paredes

A. The Old Man (Quezon City Jail)

The inmates were getting ready for jail breaks. Our situation in Quezon City Jail has been tense since the coronavirus breached our walls in the last week of March.

We held a noise barrage that month. It used to be calmer here. No one complained even though it was unusual that many of us suffered from high fever in February and early March. One day, we found out that an empleyada tested positive for coronavirus.

That’s when paranoia kicked in.

Empleyada or empleyado, that’s how we call the jail guards. We only learned about her case through media reports. We were kept in the dark about our real situation here.

No one bothered to explain her condition to us. The jail guards left us guessing about our safety. We were left guessing about our lives. Days after the news broke, a fellow inmate died.

Nine more inmates who came in close contact with him later tested positive for the virus.

We were angry. We eventually found out that the empleyada works in the paralegal office where e-Dalaw or the inmates’ Skype sessions with their families were held.

That tells you that she came in close contact with a lot of inmates. I wouldn’t be surprised if all of us got infected. The only way to find out is through massive testing.

‘We’re dead’

An inmate who came in close contact with the empleyada was isolated as jail administrators waited for her results to come out. On the eighth day of his quarantine period, the inmate was sent back to our dorm. We don’t know why he didn’t complete 14 days in isolation. He ate with us, slept beside us. He did practically everything with us. Then the empleyada’s results came. Positive, it said. The jail guards went to our dorm and picked him up for another round of quarantine.

Most of us were in disbelief. As the inmate walked out of our dorm, it got us thinking: Are they really killing us here? Or are they just incompetent?

When I first learned of the Covid-19 infections, one thing crossed my mind: We’re dead.

We’re dead because social distancing is a UFO (unidentified flying object) here. Experts say maintaining physical distance is the best weapon against this virus. For a jail facility that’s nearly 500 percent congested, no matter how you look at it, social distancing is alien.

Let me tell you why I don’t trust their system here.

One of the quarantine facilities was on the floor reserved for tuberculosis (TB) patients. Can you imagine that? You’re breathing TB from that entire floor. If you have ordinary colds and cough, you might get tuberculosis instead of getting cured.

Now, no one wants to admit they are sick over fears that jail guards will send them to the TB floor.

How do they check us for symptoms? They ask: “Do you have cough, cold, fever or flu?” They want to know if we have diarrhea. If we answer “no” to all their questions, that’s it.

Every move, a peso sign

Usually, a plastic screen separates the jail nurse from us.

The empleyados have personal protective equipment. Not an inch of their skin is exposed while the detainees assisting them, called the orderlies, wear only face masks. The orderlies are the real first line of defense. They attend to inmates before jail nurses do.

Earlier this year, my daughter bought me two blister packs of flu medicines. They ran out before I could even take one. I had to give them to my sick dormmates because they couldn’t ask from the clinic.

Most of my dormmates had flu symptoms at that time, but I heard the clinic ran out of supplies. Sometimes, it’s hard to ask medicines from the empleyado. If you know someone from the clinic, your connection might save your life.

Otherwise, you have to buy. Every move you make requires a peso sign. You’re dead if you don’t have money, especially if you’re facing grave charges.

Receiving government provisions is like an awarding ceremony. They need photographs for the tiniest thing they give you. They give you a blister pack of vitamins, they take pictures. They give you a bar of soap, they take pictures.

They always need to take pictures as if these were trophies they would mount on walls.

But everything is a lie. They don’t take good care of us. They don’t even come near those in quarantine areas. They stay outside the bars that separate them from the inmates.

In response to that, I would reach out to grab them whenever they asked me how I felt. It always made them flinch and step backwards. It’s so funny! I do that just to see how they’d react.

I don’t feel we are being treated as humans here.

Hopeless, helpless

Inside jails, you are tormented by the thought that you can’t do anything. People want to complain but can’t. They don’t know how, and they are afraid.

Inside jails, you feel hopeless and helpless.

Hopeless because you are under their rule. It’s like a military camp. What the empleyado wants, the empleyado gets.

Helpless because there are no real safety measures. There are no standard procedures for quarantine.

This is why I decided to speak up. I want things to change – from quarantine and precautionary measures to the attitude of the empleyado nurse.

Once, a medical aide said a sick detainee needed attention. The empleyado answered back: “Bahala silang mamatay pabayaan mo lang sila (let them die).”

With that attitude from a government nurse, how will you feel?

Why are we put in such conditions?

We’re presumed innocent until proven guilty. We should not be placed in these life-threatening conditions. We still have the right to life.

Tormented

Tension between jail guards and inmates subsided when the government started releasing detainees in April. Some days they released 20 inmates, some days they released five, 10 or 38.

It’s a slow process but at least they’re doing something to address the problem.

On April 19, the jail started segregating the elderly from the general population.

Old men, like me, were taken to administrative offices previously occupied by jail personnel. One of the offices was the paralegal office! It was the office where the empleyada who tested positive for Covid-19 was assigned.

In one of the facilities, 11 people shared two gurneys and a stretcher. Sick inmates who recently died used to occupy those makeshift hospital beds. I don’t know if they have been disinfected.

After all the deaths and infections here, information remains scarce. They’re not telling us anything. Don’t we deserve to know the truth so we can also protect ourselves?

Like me, I’m already 60 years old. My immune system is weak.

For now, I take things one step at a time. I have this mindset that I will never wait for my release anymore. It will torment you if you wait for it. But at night, I sleep wishing that I can get out.

I wish I could benefit from the Supreme Court petition that was filed on behalf of detainees. When the courts sent me here earlier this year, I didn’t have colds and cough. Now I have it. I’m afraid that if they don’t do anything, I will die here in a few days.

“I think I’m Covid-19 positive as I have all the symptoms, but until now, I have never been swabbed for a test,” the jail aide said. Illustration by Alexandra Paredes

B. The Jail Aide (Quezon City Jail)

We badly need mass testing. I am one of the orderlies in Quezon City Jail. The old man and I are concerned that many of us are infected with Covid-19 already.

We don’t have sufficient information about what’s happening. They’re not telling us anything. I don’t know why. Maybe, they don’t want us to panic?

In March or February, we ran out of paracetamol after detainees with fever inundated the clinic.

Our Covid-19 prevention measures are also terrible! I’m one of those who assist jail doctors and nurses in the clinic. Those I work with are protected with proper medical equipment. Me? I attend to patients wearing only a glove and a face mask to protect myself.

In April, they relieved me of my duties when I went down with high fever. I really thought I would die. I had convulsions. I’ve been in quarantine ever since.

I think I’m Covid-19 positive as I have all the symptoms, but until now, I have never been swabbed for a test.

No physical distance

They placed me in isolation together with other sick inmates, which meant that if I had the virus, other inmates would catch it too.

Because it’s impossible to maintain physical distance, our line of defense against coronavirus is our immune system.

Even that is far-fetched.

Why? Because our food is terrible. Sometimes, we have longganisa (native sausage) for lunch for five straight days. For dinner, they always serve soup with vegetable. Sometimes our rice supply is half-cooked. Sometimes it’s burnt.

With lack of proper food and exercise, boosting our immune system is next to impossible.

“The truth is, many of us are sick,” the convict said. Illustration by Alexandra Paredes

C. The Convict (New Bilibid Prison)

More people are dying in New Bilibid Prison every day. It is as if there’s a typhoon of dead bodies raining all over us.

This May, more than 100 inmates died. That number is unprecedented. It’s the first time I have seen something like that since I arrived here 20 years ago.

Many of them died of pneumonia and other respiratory problems. However, there were no tests that would confirm them as Covid-19 patients.

We are scared of many things. We are scared of contracting the virus, but we are also scared of getting thrown inside isolation wards.

Prison doctors will isolate you if they think you have symptoms. We don’t want to be in further isolation. This fear prompts inmates to lie about their real health condition. The truth is, many of us are sick.

The NBP has three camps: the maximum, medium, and minimum security compounds. The isolation areas are located inside these facilities. They are different from the newly built “Site Harry” where Covid-19-positive patients from the Bureau of Corrections were put in quarantine or treated. Site Harry is located beside the medium security camp.

We are scared but we can’t do anything. Gang bosses might wring our necks if we complain. Speak up and face the risk of being locked up in a bartolina (isolation cell).

We have to wear masks wherever we go. Prison guards and gang leaders are strictly implementing this policy outside our dorms.

Ironically, we can remove our masks inside our dorms during bedtime. Covid-19 must be having a grand time inside our walls!

‘Their lives matter’

There’s no way to gauge what’s plaguing us, for sure. There’s no massive testing among inmates for the virus that has already killed one of us.

I can only assume.

Uncertainty is our enemy. Only one thing is clear to me: NBP is not Covid-19-free and we may contract the virus anytime. Dying of Covid-19 seems only a matter of time.

We are scared for the prison guards, too. They also need attention. They need to be tested, and tested rigorously.

Should guards die, they would be called heroes. The government would hail them as frontliners who risked their lives for public safety. Their lives matter.

But when we, the inmates, die, we will be reduced to nothing but ashes that our families can retrieve from crematoriums for a hefty price of P30,000.

We know that the virus is a problem everywhere. All we’re asking for is a health care system that caters to everyone, including us.

We’re humans too. #

***

Postscript:

A spokesman for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) confirmed to the PCIJ that the female staff of Quezon City Jail who tested positive for Covid-19 was part of the “e-Dalaw operation,” but said her participation was limited to planning the inmates’ schedules. Detainees held a noise barrage after finding out that the empleyada had caught the disease, but the “commotion” was pacified and jail staff and inmates have since maintained open communication with each other, the spokesman claimed.

The BJMP did not respond to queries on whether suspected Covid-19 cases were isolated on the same floor as tuberculosis patients. –PCIJ, June 2020

Aie Balagtas See is a freelance journalist working on human rights issues. Follow her on Twitter (@AieBalagtasSee) or email her at aie.bsee@gmail.com for comments.

Alexandra Paredes is a graphic designer and artist. Her design practice spans social impact, corporate collaterals, teaching, writing, and commissioned art. Find her online at alexandraparedes.com.

Paredes’s illustrations are fictional representations of the old man, the jail aide, and the convict. These are artistic renderings inspired by PCIJ file photos of prisoners.

Open-air jeepneys safer against COVID-19 than enclosed modernized counterparts

by IBON Media & Communications

With only modernized jeepneys allowed to resume operations this week, research group IBON said that keeping traditional jeepneys off the road inconveniences commuters and also denies them potentially safer means of transport.

The group said that the traditional open-air jeepney is likely even safer against COVID-19 than its air-conditioned modernized counterpart. With the pandemic still ongoing, insisting on jeepney modernization unnecessarily puts commuters at risk of possible airborne coronavirus infections.

The second phase of public transport resumption in general community quarantine (GCQ) areas will begin on June 22.

Public utility buses (PUB), modern public utility vehicles (PUVs) like modern jeepneys, and utility vans (UV) express will be allowed to operate.

Traditional jeepneys will remain prohibited.

IBON said that the Duterte administration is using COVID-19 as an excuse to force jeepneys off the road and fast-track its ill-conceived modernization.

IBON however said that the ban on traditional jeepneys should be lifted.

According to the group, there are studies which indicate that open-air transport may have advantages over enclosed, air-conditioned transport in controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Most coronavirus transmissions are acknowledged to occur via droplet infection, from coughing and sneezing, and partly through contaminated surfaces.

Nonetheless, recent studies show that the number of pathogens increases considerably in enclosed spaces and that regular ventilation reduces the risk of infection.

Despite physical distancing, enclosed modern jeepneys can become centers for spreading the virus compared to the natural ventilation of traditional jeepneys, said the group.

Medical researchers and physicists from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) have found that small cough droplets, potentially containing virus particles, can stay in the air of enclosed spaces especially when poorly ventilated.

Air quality and health experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences similarly find that airborne transmission is a significant route of infection in indoor environments.

The UITP (Union Internationale des Transports Publics) or International Association of Public Transport, with 1,600 members in 96 countries, has issued guidelines warning that public transport systems are “high risk environments” due to the “confined space and limited ventilation”

The risk of community transmission through enclosed public transport has already prompted many countries to take specific measures against this, said IBON.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) advises “proper ventilation in [public transport] at all times” and “the use of windows [to] increase replacement with fresh air”.

Similarly, the United States (US) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came out with guidelines for mass transit administrators which include, among others, “[increasing] circulation of outdoor air as much as possible”.

In Thailand, the transport ministry has instructed public transport operators to open windows for good air ventilation.

In China, some public transport groups have retrofitted window vents to air-conditioned fleets.

In India, buses are enjoined to improve ventilation by increasing the frequency of fresh air intake.

With COVID-19 still spreading, traditional jeepneys have the advantage of being open-air, dissipating droplets with the virus faster, and lowering the risk of transmission, said IBON.

Jeepney drivers prevented from going back to work by the government ask for help. (Kodao)

Yet the government’s narrow-minded focus on corporate-driven jeepney modernization threatens to forego this important built-in advantage in the mass transport system.

The pandemic is being used to put thousands of jeepney drivers out of work and take traditional jeepneys permanently off the road in a brutal enforced phaseout, the group said.

IBON stressed that efficient and reliable public transport is critical to resume as normal social and economic life as possible amid the pandemic.

Commuters suffering from the lack of jeepneys include many health workers and emergency service providers at the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19.

Jeepney drivers and operators need subsidies to make up for revenue losses and higher operating expenses. The current situation is also an opportunity to promote cooperativization towards the eventually nationalized public mass transport for ensuring this vital service. #

PH Debt: All’s well that swells

by Rosario Guzman

Lenders have offered to defer debt payments for those severely affected by the lockdown. The World Bank has encouraged the Group of 20 nations to postpone repayment of official bilateral credit, although has not yet considered suspending debt payments owed it. The International Monetary Fund has approved debt relief to its 25 poorest member countries. Commercial banks have offered a 60-day grace period for loans, including for household debts borrowed through credit cards. Even informal moneylenders in the Philippines’ urban poor communities have reportedly stopped collecting loan installments for a while.

These are not necessarily all done out of sheer goodwill. In many cases they seek to stop debtors from succumbing to severe debt-driven crisis due to the pandemic which would stop them from paying anything at all in the future. In short, they are also favorable to the creditors.

The Duterte government, with its much-brandished good credit standing, could have moved for debt relief too but instead, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it started borrowing more. The finance department underscores the need for government to borrow from foreign sources to fund its economic recovery plan. Multilateral and country creditors have unsurprisingly exploited the situation and recycled funds to lend.

Do we really need to borrow for COVID response? People have asked. How are we going to pay for all of these debts?

Accumulating debt

The Duterte administration’s Philippine Program for Recovery with Equity and Solidarity (PH-PROGRESO) is worth Php1.7 trillion, Php561 billion (US$11 billion) of which is targeted by the Department of Finance (DOF) to come from bilateral and multilateral loans and global bonds. There is another Php404 million (US$8 million) in foreign grants.

From March 14 to June 4 this year, based on IBON monitoring, the Duterte government has already obtained foreign commitments of US$3.95 billion in loans, US$17.3 million in grants, and US$5 million in technical assistance (TA) – all for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The Philippine-headquartered Asian Development Bank (ADB) accounts for US$2.1 billion of the loans plus all of the TA and much of the grants. The World Bank accounts for US$1.1 billion, and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) for US$750 million. There are US$9.3 million in grants from USAID. In sum, there are 7 project loans, 2 grants, and 1 regional TA so far.

Loans amounting to US$3.95 billion are, at the current exchange rate of Php50.05 to a US dollar, equivalent to Php197.7 billion. This increased the outstanding national government debt which has already risen from Php7.7 trillion by the end of 2019 to an astounding Php8.6 trillion by April 2020. The Php869-billion increment in the last four months far surpasses the full-year increments of the last three years.

Government securities increased by Php436 billion, while the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas used its repurchase facility to lend Php300 billion to the national government for COVID response. Meanwhile, external debt increased by Php133.1 billion from December 2019 to April 2020. In April 2020, the Duterte government’s foreign debt grew 16.5% year-to-date and 16.4% year-on-year, or the biggest increase in the last four years.

The Duterte government has already reached 66% (or Php919.5 billion) of its Php1.4 trillion projected gross borrowings for the year. If the planned foreign financing for PH-PROGRESO alone is realized, the government would already go over its borrowing projection. This does not yet include the uncontrollable increase in domestic debt due to the continuous issuance of government securities. Domestic debt comprises 68% of the outstanding national government debt.

For whose sake, really?

The loan commitments are specified for strengthening healthcare, augmenting funds for socioeconomic relief, and providing economic stimulus for agriculture and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). There are also wage subsidies for small enterprises and support for repatriated overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

These are urgent things to attend to during the pandemic that the Duterte government has not competently addressed. Instead, we have only witnessed how government’s policy of health privatization, neglect of essential economic sectors, and myopic understanding of the poor have made it ill-prepared for an emergency such as COVID.

COVID-19 is unplanned thus the need to apply for a loan – that has been the official line. Are the loans meant to help us cope with the coronavirus, while government opts to keep spending for its neoliberal policies and to protect business?  Actually, these urgent loan-financed items are part of a larger package which includes even bigger support for businesses who get financial relief in the form of tax deferrals, low-interest loans, and credit guarantee schemes.

The country’s creditors are more straightforward. They will provide budgetary support so that the country’s economic managers can continue spending on the administration’s Build, Build, Build (BBB) infrastructure projects, foreign investment attractions, tourism and other boosters of the otherwise slowing, and now contracting, economy.

The ADB has pledged US$1.5 billion from its COVID-19 Active Response and Expenditure Support (CARES) program for fiscal management, among others. The AIIB’s US$750 million loan is co-financed with CARES. The AIIB only has loan facilities for infrastructure investment and does not have a ‘development financing’ orientation. It recently launched a COVID recovery facility but even this is oriented towards addressing liquidity problems, providing fiscal and budgetary support in partnership with multilateral banks, and building health infrastructure – all so that governments can focus on COVID impacts and leave infrastructure funds alone.

The more recent Php400 million loan commitment of the ADB to strengthen domestic capital markets and investments is more explicit. This is to enable the Duterte government to fund infrastructure at lower costs and to enable the private sector to raise infrastructure funds from capital markets.

COVID-19 is unplanned, while the Duterte administration’s focus is unchanged. The government is still fixated on burnishing the economy’s image to attract foreign investors, and will only address the emergency by as much as it can borrow. This reinforces the country’s vicious spiral of debt and shallow economic growth. Creditors are complicit in this neoliberal COVID response.

Protecting profits

But what really demolishes the argument that government needs to take out a loan for COVID-19 is that there are viable sources of money that government chooses to forego in behalf of big business. Case in point is the DOF-backed Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises (CREATE) bill, the renamed second package of the unpopular Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Law. The first package taxes consumption goods by the poor and relieves the rich of paying income taxes. CREATE in turn reduces corporate income tax from 30% to 25%  from July 2020 until 2022 and thereafter 1% yearly cut until 20% by 2027. This gives corporations up to Php667 billion worth of tax breaks over the next five years, which is the largest in the country’s history.

CREATE is at the core of the administration’s recovery plan, PH-PROGRESO. It also proposes Php133.7 billion in loans and guarantees, Php142.8 billion in other tax cuts and foregone revenue, and Php233.3 billion in additional liquidity. PH-PROGRESO declares prioritizing the resumption of BBB. To do so, it incentivizes big business with tax cuts and liquidity and equity infusion through government intervention and borrowing in the guise of helping them recover from the pandemic recession. The creation of jobs and recovery of incomes of the poor and vulnerable are an afterthought.

Indeed, government has to revive the economy from the unnecessary lockdown, but this has to start with what is truly essential. The COVID crisis is an extraordinary opportunity for government to strengthen national production in agriculture and industry – a surefire way to stimulate employment and consumption. But agriculture and the MSMEs that make up the majority of the country’s enterprises are extremely marginalized.

In the House-approved Php1.3 trillion Accelerated Recovery and Investments Stimulus for the Economy (ARISE) bill, agriculture gets a paltry Php66 billion and MSMEs are allocated only Php125 billion in loans and guarantees. The COVID crisis is also a golden chance to bridge the chasm between rich and poor, which has become stark especially during COVID. But quite to the contrary the Duterte government has relieved the rich and increased borrowing to sustain such economic order – an addition to the mounting burden of the poor.

Unpayable future

The DOF reiterates that the debt is payable and that the country is in no way headed to a debt crisis. It says that the debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is only around 39.6% at the end of 2019 and 43.3% as of March 2020. The ratio indicates manageable levels, says the government, and is much less than in 2000-2010 when the debt-to-GDP ratio hovered around an annual average of 60% until it started going down in 2011 at the start of the country’s high growth episode.

But those days are gone. Fast economic growth peaked in 2012-2016 then steadily declined since the start of the Duterte presidency. Before COVID, the administration tried to but could not cover up the slowing economy. The GDP growth slowed from 6.9% in 2016, 6.7% in 2017, 6.2% in 2018, and to just 6.0% in 2019, the slowest in eight years. The economy shrank in the first quarter of 2020 by 0.2%, and the economic managers are seeing a severe decline in full-year real GDP growth to -0.6% to 4.3 percent.

All the sources of economic growth that government has relied on – OFW remittances and foreign direct investment in BPOs and export manufacturing – have slowed down since the beginning of the Duterte administration. And these are definitely headed into a tailspin as the global economy sinks deeper into crisis.

The Duterte government has never considered the erosion of agriculture and manufacturing to arrest the economic slowdown. Instead, it has artificially boosted economic growth with pump-priming – increasing government spending to its highest level as percent of GDP. Infrastructure spending comprised 4.7% of the GDP in 2019 and is targeted to reach 7.0% of the GDP by 2022. It shall be the highest among all the administrations.

BBB projects are the Duterte administration’s preferred drug for resuscitating the ailing economy before it slips away. However, it has been borrowing heavily for this. Of the Php4.3 trillion needed for the 100 flagship infrastructure projects of the administration, 83% is expected to come from official development assistance (ODA), mostly in the form of loans. The Duterte government’s borrowing binge is unprecedented – on a monthly average, it is borrowing Php45.6 billion, almost three times as much as Aquino (Php19.0 billion) and over twice as much as Arroyo (Php21.2 billion).

The fiscal deficit is thus a growing problem, with the Php660.2 billion deficit in 2019 equivalent to 3.5% of GDP. The fiscal deficit is already at Php348 billion as of April 2020.

Here is why the debt is eventually unpayable and such a huge burden. First of all, ODA loans may be at concessional rates but are tied to the conditionality of using the technology, materials and expertise of the creditor country. In the case of China, this includes even the use of Chinese labor. Secondly, absorptive capacity in a program as grand as BBB is a major issue. The Philippine government lacks the bureaucratic and technical capacity to implement all the grand infrastructure projects. This capacity has been eroded by decades of privatization and deregulation. The private sector, on the other hand, is not that deep because of the economy’s backward fundamentals. Third, BBB’s main focus is mobility for the benefit of the service and trading oriented economy, and not in building Philippine agriculture and industry. Thus the infusion of infrastructure capital or even the construction of the facility will not be useful in the long run for national development.

Lastly and most ironically, we are being obliged to fully pay for this mounting debt. This early, the government is already thinking of taxing and raising government fees on the very coping mechanisms of the dislocated working people. For instance, the economic managers want to tax online selling even as people are losing their sources of livelihood, or want to collect bike registration fees as workers seek alternatives to the poor public mass transport, among others. The government already failed to meet its revenue target in 2019, short by Php12.2 billion, and is anticipating even bigger spending and bigger debt in 2020.

Our future is being mortgaged. It doesn’t help to cure apprehensions when government says that the debt is manageable. Government has to end its anti-people neoliberal economic policies, and only then shall we be well. #

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