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Lawyer, CHR score Duterte’s order vs non-mask wearers

President Rodrigo Duterte’s directive to have those who do not wear masks or wear them improperly arrested undermines the rule of law and may be prone to excessive discretion and abuse by government authorities, a lawyers’ group and the Commission on Human Rights said.

Reacting to Duterte’s verbal order issued Wednesday night, National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers president Edre Olalia said the arrest directive is another authoritarian edict by the President.

“[T]he legal justification is not only inapplicable but erroneous because there appears to be no clearly defined crime or offense covered by any specific law or lawful ordinance for a valid instance of warrantless arrest to operate,” Olalia said.

The human rights lawyers said the order is a “cruel, degrading and inhuman punishment disproportionate to the evil sought to be supposedly addressed.”

He said its implementation may again be discriminatory as shown by the arrest, detention and death of mostly poor people arising from various coronavirus lockdown orders implemented by the government since the pandemic hit the Philippines in March 2020.

“This is what we get when we have knee-jerk draconian ideas rather than commonsensical solutions… Imagine the time, effort, resources – even brain neurons – to be spent legislating, enforcing, arresting, detaining, prosecuting and convicting for such a petty misdemeanor,” Olalia said.

He added that Duterte’s “serial mailed fist cures” would just worsen the coronavirus problem and lock the people up in the “slippery slope of inane coercive measures.”

The lawyer suggested providing facemasks for free to those who cannot afford them and launching massive popular information drives to prevent further congestion of the government’s jail facilities.

‘Detain them!’

In a meeting with pandemic task force officials Wednesday night, Duterte admitted he is at a loss on how to stem the rising number of coronavirus cases in the country.

“My orders to the police are, those who are not wearing their mask properly, in order to protect the public… to arrest them,” the President said.

“Detain them, investigate them why they’re doing it,” he said.

The chief executive said the police may detain those arrested to up to nine hours.

“If I don’t do this strictly, nothing will happen,” he said in Filipino.

‘Abusive’

The Commission on Human Rights however agreed with Olalia and said in a statement Thursday it is concerned that in the absence of clear guidelines, Duterte’s directive may be prone to excessive discretion and abuse.

“[W]ith the noted rise of human rights violations arising from violations of health protocols, we have stressed the need for reasonable and humane disciplinary measures for violators,” CHR spokesperson Jacqueline Ann de Guia said.

De Guia noted that several local government units have passed ordinances penalizing those not wearing masks in public but said the measures only often reprimand, fine or order violators to perform community service.

She agreed with Olalia that the country’s overcrowded jails may not be a sound strategy to prevent the further spread of the virus in the communities.

“In the end, it is through intensive education and information campaigns, not fear, that would best result in better compliance with healthy and safety protocols during the pandemic. ..We may be in quarantine due to the pandemic, but rights should not be on lockdown,” de Guia said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Ayuda urgent: Jobs crisis still worse than before pandemic — IBON

Government claims of the employment situation improving in February 2021 compared to pre-pandemic January 2020 are unfounded, research group IBON said.

The so-called increase in employment is just Filipinos desperate to make a living in any way they can. This makes the need for substantial cash aid even more urgent, the group said.

The economic managers repeatedly claim that “we have surpassed our pre-pandemic employment level of 42.6 million in January 2020,” such as when the February 2021 labor force survey (LFS) results were released.

IBON said the LFS figures, however, clearly show that the jobs crisis existing even before the pandemic has only gotten worse upon the longest and harshest lockdowns in Southeast Asia.

Reported employment increased by 610,000, from 42.5 million in January 2020 to 43.2 million in February 2021. But this was far from enough for the labor force which grew by 2.4 million over that same period to 47.3 million, said the group, resulting in even greater unemployment.

IBON also noted that there are 12 million combined unemployed (4.2 million) and underemployed (7.9 million) Filipinos as of February 2021, which is much more than the 8.7 million in January 2020 (i.e. 2.4 million unemployed and 6.3 million underemployed).

The 1.8 million increase in unemployment in itself already indicates collapsing household incomes for millions of Filipino families, said the group.

Photo by R. Villanueva/Kodao

The marginal increase in employment should not be seen as a sign of any improvement because it masks a serious deterioration in the quality of work in the country, IBON said. Even less than before, so-called employment is not enough to give Filipino families the regular and secure incomes they need to survive.

By class of workers, the number of wage and salary workers fell by over 1 million and of employers in family farms and businesses by 72,000 from widespread lockdown-driven business closures and retrenchments. These are down to 26.7 million and 930,000, respectively.

IBON noted that jobless Filipinos were apparently driven to “self-employment” which bloated by 1.4 million and to being “unpaid family workers” which rose by 356,000. These increased to 12.5 million and 3 million, respectively.

By hours worked, the number of full-time workers fell by 2.9 million to 25.9 million. Those working only part-time however increased by 3.2 million to 16.6 million, and those “with a job, not at work” by 325,000 to 657,000.

IBON stressed that tens of millions of Filipinos are going hungry, most of all from not having the money to buy food especially from the lack of work.

The Php10,000 emergency cash assistance being demanded is all the more urgent to immediately alleviate hunger. The inflation-adjusted official food threshold as of March 2021 for a family of five is Php2,133 per week in the National Capital Region (NCR) and Php1,905 per week on average for the Philippines.

The latest Php1,000 token cash aid is glaringly not even enough for food expenses, considering even that official food thresholds are ridiculously low to begin with, IBON said.

At the same time, a large fiscal stimulus is critical to arrest economic scarring, jump-start the economy, and genuinely improve employment on a wider scale, said the group. #

QC houses demolished amid strict Covid lockdown

[UPDATED, 7:00 AM, April 6, 2021] Amid an extended round of the latest Covid pandemic lockdown, several houses had been demolished today along Maginoo Street, Barangay Pinyahan in Quezon City.

Urban poor group Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay) reported that elderly residents who lived in the demolished houses have been forced out on the streets, raising fears they may later be arrested by the police for curfew and lock down violations.

Eleven families were affected and no relocation has yet been offered to them, Kadamay told Kodao.

Private claimant-couple Nicolo and Luzviminda Junsay led the demolition, Kadamay said.

The group claimed the demolition is illegal and that barangay officials had no prior knowledge of the incident.

Kadamay said that prior to today’s incident, the affected residents were being forced to sign certain documents but no court order and notice have been presented before the demolition team swooped down on the community.

Demolition along Maginoo Street, Brgy. Pinyahan, Quezon City. (Kadamay photos)

“While we are under the ECQ (enhanced community quarantine), the demolition pushed through. No notice, no relief goods, no assistance had been given to those affected and straight out on the streets they went,” Kadamay said in an alert.

The group blamed both the National Housing Authority and President Rodrigo Duterte as promoters of demolitions.

“They order us to stay at home while new coronavirus cases are on the rise, but they continue to endanger people. Those affected have lost their houses and are likely to be arrested while they are out on the streets,” Kadamay said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Curfew violator dies after ‘cruel police punishment’

[UPDATED, 7:08 AM, April 6, 2021] A man died in General Trias, Cavite after being punished by the police for violating the pandemic lockdown curfew, an activist organization reported.

The League of Filipino Students (LFS)-University of the Philippines in Los Baños chapter said a certain Darren Manaog Peñaredondo died on Easter Sunday, April 4, as a result of being ordered to perform about 300 cycles of an exercise routine.

The LFS said the victim stepped out of their house Thursday evening to buy drinking water but was apprehended by Barangay Tejero security personnel and turned over to the police

Facebook page Go Cavite also reported the incident, saying Peñaredondo and fellow arrestees were ordered by the police to perform 100 “pumping” exercises but were told to repeat them twice as they were not in sync.

“Pumping” is a series of punishing exercises that may include air squats, sit-ups and push ups.

The incident happened at the vicinity of the General Trias Municipal Hall, Go Cavite said.

Peñaredondo’s death was first reported by his cousin Adrian Luceña who also wrote on his Facebook page the victim was allowed to come home on Friday morning at about eight o’clock in the morning but already had difficulty walking.

“At dawn of Saturday, he (Peñaredondo) suffered repeated convulsions and was revived. But he eventually became comatose until he died at 10 o’clock (on Saturday evening),” Luceña wrote in Filipino.

Luceña added that Peñaredondo told him he collapsed several times as they were being punished.

He said they will demand justice for Peñaredondo’s death.

Luceña’s post has gone viral on various social media platforms.

A video taken by the victim’s common law wife Reichelyn Balce was posted by GMA Network showing Peñaredondo unable to stand up and rolling on the floor in agony.

The news report said the victim was taken to a hospital where he died.

The LFS said the victim’s death was a case of police brutality.

The Gen. Trias police chief Lt. Col. Lieutenant Colonel Marlo Solero meanwhile denied they punish curfew violators and said they only lecture those arrested.

He added the police only order some sort of community service to those they have apprehended for curfew violations.

Gen. Trias Mayor Antonio Ferrer said an investigation has been launched. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

‘Si Duterte mismo ang kalbaryo sa magbubukid’

“The Duterte regime knows nothing but to repress the people. Farmers have been demanding aid and production subsidy as the pandemic and economic crisis rages, yet it has repeatedly attacked legitimate peasant leaders and organizations. Si Duterte mismo ang kalbaryo sa magbubukid!”Danilo Ramos, National Chairperson, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas

‘They treated me like I murdered someone’: Lockdown arrests mark 1st year of PH pandemic response

Fines from lockdown arrests have bled poor Filipinos dry while the rich and famous get wrist slaps for similar offenses. Calls for a different approach grow louder as the pandemic lockdown enters its second year.

BY AIE BALAGTAS SEE/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Hunger pains hit Erwin Macahig, 30, at an inconvenient time on a hot and humid evening in the slums of Navotas. 

It was 9 p.m. on April 8, 2020, an hour past the city-imposed curfew that took effect roughly two weeks after the country’s Covid-19 infections began to rise and the Philippine capital was put on lockdown. The city streets turned into a ghost town manned by cops and soldiers in camouflage uniforms. The poorly lit alleys where Macahig lived seemed even darker in the silence of the night.

He was walking toward a sari-sari store when someone grabbed his wrist from behind. A cop. Three of his neighbors – out on the streets like him – were rounded up as well. 

The cops were accompanied by barangay officials who were jittery about Covid-19 spreading in the village and wouldn’t tolerate excuses that night from residents who violated the curfew ordinance. 

After getting a swab test at a public hospital, Macahig and the three other men were taken to a school where they were to be detained for the next 30 days for “simple disobedience” – unless they could post bail worth P3,000. For someone who had just been retrenched, the amount was a fortune that was impossible to raise in the middle of a pandemic.

“We did not receive financial aid from the government. Our food supply was only a few canned goods and three kilos of rice for a month. And they want us to pay a P3,000 fine? Where are we going to get that money? Frankly, they just made our difficult situation tougher,” Macahig told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in Filipino. 

Getting a criminal record for a mere attempt to buy food was beyond Macahig’s imagination.

“I don’t deny committing violations but why did they have to treat me like I just murdered someone?” he said.

Punitive pandemic response

Lockdown arrests marked the early months of the Philippines’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Police Task Force Covid Shield has not released the total number of Filipinos arrested, detained, or fined one year since the lockdown began on March 15, but it was already at 100,000 as of September 2020. 

Police Major General Marni Marcos, chief of the Directorate for Investigation and Detection Management, has yet to respond to PCIJ’s requests for data. 

The punitive response has drawn a lot of controversies. In Santa Cruz town, capital of Laguna province, curfew violators, including children, were locked up in a dog cage. In Dasmariñas Village in Makati City, a Spanish national was declared an “undesirable alien” who could no longer return to the country, after an altercation with cops over mask rules. In Quezon City, a former soldier with mental illness was killed by cops after a commotion near a quarantine control point.

Many ended up in packed detention centers, which health and jail experts said were among the worst places to find one’s self in during the pandemic. They called them “breeding grounds” for Covid-19, where detainees were at risk of being exposed to the disease that the government has been trying to protect them from. 

In Navotas, about 1,000 people were cramped in the school where Macahig was detained. Fifty violators shared one classroom, he said. At night, they slept on cartons on cold floors. There were no provisions for food, soap, alcohol and potable water, he said. 

“I was more afraid of contracting the virus there because we didn’t comply with health protocols in the school at all. Detainees only wore face masks and followed social distancing rules when a high police official arrived for inspection,” Macahig said.

They were later transferred to an open space – a covered court behind the school building – after the school was converted into a quarantine site for suspected Covid-19 cases.

His friends and family – all of whom were financially knocked out by business closures themselves – eventually raised funds for his bail. “They did it out of pity. Some donated P20; others P100,” he said. 

Macahig was released on April 23 after he paid the fine. He pled guilty before a municipal trial court.

Relatives of quarantine violators wait outside the Navotas Metropolitan Trial Court to get their kin out of detention. There was a narrow window for the processing of release documents, 8 a.m. to noon, as working periods were shortened because of the pandemic. Photograph: Vincent Go
‘My family thought I was dead’

Other than imposing curfews, local governments also issued travel passes to limit the number of people allowed to go out even during day time. Those who didn’t have passes were arrested, too.

But Caloocan fish vendor Joseph Jimeda, known to many social media users as “Mang Dodong,” said he was arrested despite having a travel pass.

He was travelling to neighboring Navotas with friends to buy fish that they could sell in the market when the police took them on suspicion they didn’t have travel passes. Jimeda said he begged the cops for compassion because he had a four-year old at home and his wife had a cataract and could barely see.

“We kept explaining that we have them (about the travel passes), but the cops never listened to us. They just wanted to arrest people,” Jimeda said in an interview.

At the detention center, Jimeda received smacks and punches from authorities, instead of food and help. He could not inform his family of his whereabouts because he did not have a mobile phone at that time. The police did not help him. “All the while my family thought I was dead,” he said.

Jimeda was detained in the same covered court in Navotas several weeks after Macahig was released. Again, there was not enough food for the growing number of detainees. Those who didn’t receive visitors often suffered from hunger, he said. 

‘Yung iba akala mo patay-gutom (You’d think the others were destitutes),” Macahig said. “Some of them will join you in your meals uninvited. It’s embarrassing to shoo them away.”

Jimeda was released onMay 19 after 12 days in detention.

Photo shows Mang Dodong in detention  at the enclosed Navotas Sports Complex on May 14, 2020. The sports complex served as a detention center for quarantine violators. Photograph: Vincent Go
No money to pay fines

Those who couldn’t pay the fines had to stay longer in detention. 

Randy delos Santos, a coordinator of the church group Paghilom led by Fr. Flavie Villanueva, said several people from the slums have sought financial assistance from their office in Manila since April of last year. 

They had similar complaints: Being fined and arrested for violating quarantine rules.

The penalties ranged from P250 to P50,000, depending on the type of violation alleged and the city where it was committed.

Delos Santos said the calls for help usually came from people in Navotas, Manila and Caloocan. 

Delos Santos said there should be a shift in policies because fines imposed by ordinances that were passed to address the health crisis were bleeding the poor dry and sending them into deeper debt.

“It’s an additional burden to the poor,” delos Santos said. “Local governments should channel their energies toward educating the people and teaching the community how to follow proper health protocols,” delos Santos said.

While the poor suffered fines and long days in detention centers for finding ways to fend off their hunger, the past year has shown that the rich and powerful can hold parties and receive token wrist slaps for their violations. 

In January, events organizer and host Tim Yap organized a party in Baguio City, attended by guests who didn’t wear masks, among them contact-tracing czar and Baguio mayor Benjamin Magalong. Another celebrity, Raymond Gutierrez, threw a birthday party at trendy Bonifacio Global City Taguig the same month. 

In the early days of the pandemic, Makati Medical Center castigated Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III for breaching quarantine protocols when he brought his pregnant wife to the hospital while he was waiting for the results of his test for Covid-19. 

Philippine National Police chief Debold Sinas was caught holding a birthday party inside Camp Aguinaldo, while the president’s spokesperson, Harry Roque, visited a marine park in Subic. There were no repercussions for the two despite the ban on mass gatherings and unessential travel.

A different approach is needed

Carlos Conde, researcher for Human Rights Watch in Asia, said local governments must rethink “anti-poor policies” such as sending people to jail for breaking health protocols and fining violators who are obviously penniless.

“No one should spend a night in jail for violating quarantine rules. That’s inhumane,” Conde told PCIJ.

Conde said that instead of arrests and fines, the local government should channel their efforts into a massive information drive for the public to better understand the dangers of the virus that has so far killed two million people worldwide.

Political science professor Maria Ela Atienza said the government should train its sights on harnessing “bayanihan” or community spirit among Filipinos instead of imposing a culture of crime and punishment to address the pandemic. The public needed to be encouraged to take care of themselves in order to take care of one another, she said.

Atienza said the government’s message was “people should just follow rules” instead of  “the government is doing its best to make sure we have enough resources for public health and we are tying our best to support those who were economically dislocated as a result of the lockdown and we need the help of everyone to help each other.”

“The language is not focused on the cooperation of people, it’s more about getting them to follow. Otherwise, you’ll be meted with punishment. It’s (the government narrative) not for a country that’s supposed to be democratic,” she said.

To encourage better public participation, Atienza said efforts must be exerted to ensure that the law applied equally to the rich and the poor.

“The pandemic and the response of the government… exposed the inequality not only in Philipine politics but in Philippine society where you have senators and other officials, even police personnel, who violate the lockdown restrictions but at the same time they are not penalized,” she said

“But you have fish, vegetable vendors and jeepney drivers trying to find alternative sources of income penalized heavily. So you also see inequality in terms of enforcement of lockdown rules and accountability on the part of government officials,” she added.

Mang Dodong finally on his way home, late in the afternoon of May 19, 2020. Photograph: Vincent Go

One year after the Philippines went into lockdown, data from the World Health Organization showed the country as having the worst coronavirus performance in the Western Pacific Region, with a total of 611,618 infections and 12,694 deaths as of March 14. 

Infections are rising again, hovering between over 2,000 to nearly 4,000 new cases a day in recent days after months of recording less than 2,000 daily new infections on average. Metro Manila mayors have again imposed uniform curfew hours, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., beginning March 15. 

The punitive response cannot continue, said Macahig. “The government should find better solutions. It needs to stop imposing fines that only makes the poor poorer. We’re in the middle of a pandemic yet they keep milking us for money.” #

14 Charts: What the Government Has Done to Our Pandemic Economy

by IBON Communication

If you bothered to start to read this then you probably know by now that the 9.5% contraction of the Philippine economy last year was the worst on record – which is to say since the end of World War II which is only when gross domestic product (GDP) started to be estimated for the country.

he government blames the bad economic performance on the pandemic. Well, COVID-19 certainly was a problem for the country.

In September last year, the well-respected Lancet medical journal reported to the United Nations 75th General Assembly that the Philippines ranked 65th out of 91 countries worldwide in terms of COVID-19 response. We were already the worst performer in Southeast Asia then.

The Lowy Institute came out with a similar study last month. In the chart showing the Philippines and a few of our Southeast Asian neighbors, a higher line means better performance in dealing with COVID-19 as the weeks go by. The Communist Party-led Socialist Republic of Vietnam was a star performer from the very beginning.

The Philippines fared even worse in the Lowy Institute study and placed 79th out of 98 countries worldwide. The only countries that ranked lower in Asia were Bangladesh (84th), Indonesia (85th), and India (86th). Perhaps not coincidentally, what the four worst performing countries in Asia have in common is that the pandemic hit as they all struggled with authoritarian leaders and democratic decline.

Effective public health response is the most important starting point of good COVID-19 response without which other measures wouldn’t get much traction. But the economic response is also very important.

Unfortunately the Philippines lagged badly even here and, measured as share of gross domestic product (GDP), had among the smallest fiscal response in the region. The poor public health response combined with the trifling fiscal response to result in the Philippines having the worst economic performance in the region.

And is actually set to have the worst performance not just in the region but to as far away as South Asia and across East Asia.

The Duterte administration insists that it was a choice between health and the economy, kalusugan or kabuhayan, and portrayed itself as having agonized but made the difficult choice to prioritize health. The economic collapse was the price to pay, it said.

But that is a false choice – both could have been attended to well as the experience of the likes of Vietnam and Thailand have shown.

And it’s also not really the choice the administration made. In terms of COVID -19 response, the choice they made was the militarist one to treat the people as the enemy and rely on harsh lockdowns and long community quarantines. And also the choice to prioritize creditworthiness over spending to contain the pandemic and to ease the suffering of tens of millions of Filipinos.

The Duterte government chose not to spend. In the first 11 months of 2020, it only spent Php3.69 trillion which is just an 11.6% increase from the same period in 2020. Unless government spending picks up substantially in December, the last month of the year, this means that it even underspent its 2020 budget which is supposed to be as much as 13.6% more than the 2019 budget.

The historical annual average increase of budgets for the last four decades is 11.1% so the government can’t claim that there’s any stimulus happening.

And so the economy’s unprecedented collapse – because the pandemic was not contained and then because the government did not spend to stimulate it.

Hotels and restaurants, transport and storage, and construction were hit especially bad. Investments and foreign trade as well.

The biggest job losses were in hotels and restaurants, transport and storage, and manufacturing.

Agricultural employment increased – maybe partly because so much of farming and fishing is physically-distanced already, and maybe partly because retrenched and laid-off workers thought to find work there instead. Somewhat surprisingly, employment in education rose.

The biggest job losses were in hotels and restaurants, transport and storage, and manufacturing.

Agricultural employment increased – maybe partly because so much of farming and fishing is physically-distanced already, and maybe partly because retrenched and laid-off workers thought to find work there instead. Somewhat surprisingly, employment in education rose.

The drop in employment was unparalleled. In April 2020, at the height of the government’s lockdown, the number of employed suddenly fell to 33.8 million which was as low as a dozen years before in 2008.

In short, there’s a huge social crisis with millions of unemployed, poverty increasing, and hunger worsening.

Yet the Duterte administration seems oblivious and COVID-19-related emergency cash assistance, or ayuda, has dwindled to almost nothing this year – while corporations (especially large and foreign firms) are being given Php133 billion in corporate income tax cuts.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of distressed micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are getting scant support. Various surveys by the International Trade Center (ITC), Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and World Bank reported as much as 10-15% of businesses expecting to close permanently.

Yet, according to the president’s reports to Congress, Bayanihan 1 and Bayanihan 2 have extended financing support to less than 28,000 by the end of last year.

The government’s preferred approach of using monetary and financial policy to stimulate the economy simply isn’t working. Despite hundreds of billions of pesos in liquidity poured into the economy and interest rates down to record lows, businesses aren’t borrowing – with loan growth even contracting for the first time in 14 years.

This is most of all because so many ordinary Filipinos with no work and no incomes just don’t have enough money to spend so businesses have no reason to stay in or expand their businesses.

Now it’s true that the government is grappling with record budget deficits…

… and with record debt.

The problems are huge but the equally huge solutions are well within the capacity of the government to implement if it so wanted. The Philippines needs a much more ambitious COVID-19 economic response than the Duterte administration’s current business-as-usual approach.

In broad strokes, the Duterte administration has to take much more decisive measures to contain the pandemic such as by: tracing better, more judicious quarantines, and more rapid isolation; giving more emergency cash subsidies and support to MSMEs; and actually starting on long-term reforms to strengthen domestic agriculture and build national industry.

Most of all, it has to respond in a much more rational and humane manner. Too many Filipinos and their families are suffering from the government’s inaction, and too many small businesses are distressed from being left behind.

IBON takes up the economy’s problems in more detail and outlines possible solutions more concretely in our forthcoming Birdtalk paper. Please have a look at it! #

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

Shifting to MGCQ a short-sighted and desperate move without containing pandemic

By IBON Communications

Research group IBON said that lifting COVID-related restrictions to boost the economy is a short-sighted and desperate move amid continuing failure to contain the pandemic. The group agreed that the government’s excessive quarantine restrictions since last year are behind the economy’s unprecedented and continuing collapse. IBON however said that easing restrictions will not spur recovery without a real fiscal stimulus while risking the more rapid spread of COVID-19.

Economic planning secretary Karl Kendrick Chua recently advised Malacañang to put the entire country under modified general community quarantine (MGCQ). The ‘less restrictive’ MGCQ will supposedly allow the resumption of business activities previously limited under the pandemic lockdown.

IBON pointed out that the proposal to ease restrictions comes while the number of COVID-19 cases has been increasing since the start of the year. The 9,161 cases in the first week of the year increased to 10,741 so far in the week February 4-10. Data for this most recent week may even still be incomplete because of delays in reporting. The group asked where the optimism that the coronavirus is contained is coming from.

IBON stressed that the administration needs to greatly improve its measures to contain COVID-19 instead of relying on its favored blunt instrument of protracted community quarantines. The group enumerated the measures needed as better testing, more aggressive contact tracing, selective quarantines of possible cases, and speedy isolation of confirmed cases. With the number of cases still increasing, easing restrictions without these measures in place risks COVID-19 spreading even faster.

At the same time, IBON added, shifting to MGCQ may not even spur the economy all that much because the government still refuses to spend on any real fiscal stimulus. The group stressed that significantly higher levels of government spending are needed to make up for the lockdown-driven collapse in consumption and investment. This is more so given the now record joblessness and widespread loss of incomes and savings.

Government first of all needs to contain the pandemic better, IBON said. On top of this, it simply has to spend more to help households and small businesses cope with record jobs and income losses and to recover from the economic shock, stressed the group.

The group pointed out how the record 9.5% contraction of the economy in 2020 was substantially due to how the Philippine government refused additional spending last year. In the first 11 months of 2020, its disbursements only increased by 11.6% which is not just below the originally programmed 13.6% increase for the year but even lower than the average 12.9% increase in spending over the period 2017-2019. 

IBON also highlighted how spending even slows this year with the Php4.5 trillion 2021 national budget just a 9.9% increase from the 2020 budget. As it is, the Philippine COVID-19 response is the smallest of the major countries of Southeast Asia at just 6.3% of GDP according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

IBON proposes the following to address people’s urgent needs and stimulate the economy:

  1. Php10,000 monthly emergency cash subsidies to 18 million poor and low-income families (poorest 75% of families) or Php10,000/month for up to three months or Php5,000 for six months. This amount comes to Php540 billion.
  2. Php100 emergency wage relief for workers (towards eventual implementation of a Php750 national minimum wage). Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) can be supported to give this for three months with a Php101 billion fund.
  3. Php40.5 billion cash-for-work programs for the unemployed.
  4. Php78 billion financial assistance (zero/low interest rate and collateral-free loans) for informal earners.
  5. Php200 billion in financial assistance (zero/low interest rate and collateral-free loans) prioritizing Filipino-owned and domestically-oriented MSMEs.
  6. Php220 billion in agricultural support to increase the productivity of farmers and fisherfolk.
  7. Php200-billion COVID-19 health response and Php113-billion distance education to ensure quality education.

The group also stressed that the government can finance these if it really wanted to. IBON identified a universe of at least Php3.9 trillion in funds from which realignments can be made, Php1 trillion in emergency bonds and other government securities, Php391.9 billion in immediate revenues from progressive taxes especially a wealth tax, and at least Php333 billion more from a land value tax. #

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

Reds assure safe passage of anti-Covid vaccines into guerilla zones

The New People’s Army (NPA) will ensure unimpeded passage of anti-coronavirus vaccines in its guerilla base and zones, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) announced.

CPP information officer Marco Valbuena said the NPA will ensure that transportation of vaccines will be provided a humanitarian corridor into areas under the control and influence of the guerrilla army.

The CPP statement is in response to President Rodrigo Duterte’s appeal Monday night to allow COVID-19 vaccines to be transported “freely and safely” in far-flung areas once they become available.

“The [CPP] must guarantee that the vaccines, in the course of their being transported to areas where there are no city health officers and medical persons…please leave the medicines alone,” Duterte said.

“I am asking you now to observe that rule because that is for the Filipino people…Kindly observe the rules of humanity,” Duterte added.

“It is a matter of principle for the NPA to respect all humanitarian undertakings that benefit the masses,” the CPP replied.

The CPP however suggested that the transportation, distribution and inoculation drive of Covid-19 vaccines especially in the interior areas be handled by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Philippine Red Cross and other civilian humanitarian agencies.

The CPP said personnel of said agencies are properly trained and have the facilities to undertake such missions.

“Non-Red cross vehicles that will be used as Covid-19 vaccine transporters must be clearly and properly marked with a red cross over [a] white background,” the group said.

The CPP also strongly suggested that the vaccines not be transported in military vehicles, especially those which are not properly marked and carrying armed soldiers.

“Over the past year, the AFP has been carrying out combat and psywar (psychological warfare) operations behind the veil of implementing Covid-19 restrictions,” Valbuena explained.

Using the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to transport and handle vaccines will not encourage people to be vaccinated especially in many areas in the countryside where people are traumatized by military garrisoning of their communities and helicopter gunships firing missiles, he added.

The CPP complained that peasant civilians are worried that the AFP might use the vaccination drive for counterinsurgency and demand “surrender” before vaccine.

The Manila government said that the first batch of anti-Covid19 vaccines may arrive next week and the first inoculations may start within February. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

2020 Yearender: Economic lessons from Jose Rizal

by Sonny Africa

Wrapping up a cataclysmic year, Jose Rizal’s legendary quote is something for the Duterte administration and its economic managers to reflect on: “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.

The worst economic collapse in Philippine history and in Southeast Asia is mainly due to the government’s stumbling pandemic response and lackluster economic measures in 2020. If, again, there is more bluster than action in 2021 then real recovery will be much farther away than it should be.

Big promises

The economic managers announced a grandiose “4-Pillar Socioeconomic Strategy Against COVID-19” in April. The “Grand Total” of Php1.17 trillion was equivalent to 6.3% of gross domestic product (GDP) and sought to give the impression of grand action. This number was extremely misleading though.

There was significant double-counting. Supposedly Php338.9 billion in government spending on emergency support and health measures was counted alongside Php615 billion in borrowing – almost half of which debt was not even really going to be spent on COVID response. Another Php220.5 billion in additional liquidity and tax relief was also added.

The latest package released in October corrects some of these deceits while introducing new ones. The “Grand Total” is now an imposing Php2.57 trillion equivalent to 13.8% of GDP. The borrowing was removed while emergency support and health measures increase to Php558.8 billion. Emergency support now includes supposedly Php132 billion in credit guarantee and loan programs for small business.

The value of the package is particularly inflated by Php1.31 trillion in additional liquidity from Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) measures, Php459 billion in estimated incremental loans to MSMEs, and Php61.3 billion in foregone tax revenues especially because of corporate income tax cuts under the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises (CREATE) bill.

These are still misleading. The additional liquidity and incremental loans cited do not mean actual investments or economic activity. Smaller businesses are not borrowing because of collapsed aggregate demand and uncertain market conditions – the “incremental loans to MSMEs” are just an illustrative extrapolation from a Php45 billion capital infusion to government financial institutions. Banks meanwhile are becoming more risk averse with non-performing loans already nearly doubling to 3.2% of total loans in October from 1.7% in the same period last year.

The big numbers seem to be designed for press releases and media briefings to convince the public that the Duterte administration is undertaking herculean efforts to boost the economy. The reality is very different.

Tiny action

Measured against the economic devastation from poor pandemic containment – including over-reliance on long and harsh lockdowns and under-investment in effective testing, tracing, quarantines and isolation – government efforts border on the trivial. The most recent official estimate of -9% real GDP growth in 2020 means that the economy will be Php1.74 trillion smaller than in 2019.

There has not really been any stimulus which, to mean anything, has to involve significant additional spending beyond pre-pandemic levels. The government originally projected Php4.21 trillion in disbursements in 2020. Upon the pandemic, planned disbursements increased only slightly by Php121.4 billion to Php4.34 trillion or just a 2.9% increase.

Measured in current prices, GDP in 2019 was Php19.52 trillion which means that additional government spending in 2020 will be equivalent to just 0.6% of GDP in 2019. The economic managers refuse to spend more because of their fixation on being creditworthy to foreign debtors. The stingy non-stimulus is due to their narrow-minded fiscal conservatism.

How to reconcile this with the Php500.7 billion figure allotted for COVID-19 response as of mid-December – consisting of Php386.1 billion under Bayanihan 1, Php6.6 billion under Post-Bayanihan 1, and Php108 billion under Bayanihan 2? Most of this spending comes from existing budget items – either discontinued programs/projects (Php306.7 billion), existing special purpose funds (Php109.3 billion), regular agency budgets (Php21.2 billion), and unutilized automatic appropriations/excess revenue collections (Php63.5 billion).

The Bayanihan 2 funds released also do not even seem to have been spent yet including for vital cash assistance. The social welfare department supposedly has Php6 billion budget for around 1.2 million beneficiaries. As of mid-December, only Php931 million has actually been disbursed to just 142,058 beneficiaries.

It is likewise with labor department emergency assistance of Php16.4 billion for around 800,000-1.4 million formal workers under CAMP, 500,000 informal workers under TUPAD, and 200,000 OFWs under AKAP. Only 350,000 workers have been reported to get assistance as of the first week of December.

The rigidity and obsession with creditworthiness unfortunately carries over into the New Year. The recently approved Php4.5 trillion national government budget for 2021 is 9.9% larger than the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA). This increase is smaller than the historical annual average increase of 11.1% since 1987. It is actually even smaller than previous budget increases of the Duterte administration in 2017 (23.6% increase) and 2020 (13.6%). So, again, there’s no stimulus there.

Devastating consequences

The Duterte government’s inadequate efforts are behind the extreme economic collapse and excessive suffering of tens of millions of Filipino families. The biggest blunder is the failure to contain COVID-19 – economic activity will remain repressed as long as the pandemic is raging. The administration diverts from this original sin whenever it invokes the false dichotomy between health and the economy.

The stingy fiscal response and inappropriate monetary measures come on top of that. The lockdowns and continued physical distancing have most of all caused household incomes, business investments and aggregate demand to collapse. These warrant a much larger fiscal response especially in terms of emergency assistance to households to improve their welfare and boost consumption spending in the economy.

Yet the economic managers were stingy in providing cash assistance under Bayanihan 1 – at the height of the draconian lockdowns – and only deign to give token amounts under Bayanihan 2 and in the 2021 national government budget. The trillion peso liquidity infusions gave the illusion of meaningful intervention but, with domestic and even global demand so weak, were really just pushing on a string with little or no results.

Measured as a share of GDP, the Philippines has the smallest fiscal response in Southeast Asia – which, along with the poor health response, goes far in explaining its experiencing the biggest economic contraction in the region. The economy is smaller today than it was in 2018, and will likely only return to its size last year at the earliest by 2022.

The insistence of the economic managers that the economy was going strong coming into the pandemic harkens to glory days that never were. Economic growth has been slowing in every year of the Duterte administration from 6.9% in 2016. This fell to 6.7% in 2017, 6.2% in 2018, and 5.9% in 2019. Average annual employment growth of 1.2% in 2017-2019 is the lowest in the post-Marcos era.

The number of employed Filipinos in 2020 has fallen to its lowest in four years. The 39.4 million reported employed Filipinos in 2020 (average for the whole year) is 2.6 million less than in 2019, and even less than the 41 million reported employed four years ago in 2016.

There were probably at least 5.8 million unemployed Filipinos and an unemployment rate of 12.7% as of October 2020, more than the official count of just 3.8 million if the nearly two million invisibly unemployed for dropping out of the labor force due to the pandemic shock are also counted. There were more unemployed Filipinos in 2020 at any time in the country’s history.

Domestic unemployment is bloated by displaced overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). The labor department reported over 680,000 OFWs seeking emergency assistance as of end-November. Deployments have also drastically collapsed with the 682,000 OFWs leaving in the first nine months of the year a huge 60% less than the 1.7 million deployed in the same period last year.

Household incomes are collapsing. Family incomes are only measured every three years with the last time this was done being in 2018. At the time, 17.6 million Filipinos were estimated to fall below the low official poverty threshold of about Php71 per person per day. In a worst case scenario of incomes contracting 20% without emergency cash subsidies, the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) estimates the number to rise to as much as 29.7 million.

As it is, extrapolating from BSP Consumer Expectations Survey data, as much as 2.6-3.2 million households have had their savings wiped out by the pandemic economic shock. These are the vulnerable families whose income and livelihood losses were so large as to eat up their savings that were so low to begin with.

Lessons for 2021

The plight of tens of millions of Filipinos adversely affected by the pandemic and poor government response is not helped by the administration insisting that all is well.

The government could have pre-empted complete economic decline with a more rapid and effective health response as in Vietnam and Thailand. This remains the most urgent concern today. Unfortunately, despite relatively large numbers of COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and quarantining are lagging which means the coronavirus is still spreading. The vaccine-driven strategy is also not reassuring with emerging controversies around procurement, potential distribution bottlenecks, and self-serving preferential inoculation.

Economic distress in 2020 could also have been mitigated by a larger and better economic response of more emergency assistance, bigger support for MSMEs and domestic agriculture, and larger government spending on social infrastructure and services. These could also have been paid for with a more creative debt and finance mobilization strategy.

Instead, the Duterte administration’s poor health and economic response has resulted in the destruction of large swathes of service-oriented informal sector livelihoods, hundreds of thousands of displaced workers, reduced wages and benefits, worsened insecurity, MSME closures, and record joblessness. The wealthiest families and biggest corporations on the other hand will easily weather momentary income losses, with many even seeing their profits and market shares increase.

And yet despite a meager economic response, the budget deficit is soaring to record highs because of the collapse in revenues and continued misprioritization of infrastructure, militarism and debt service. Government debt is moreover bloating not to finance COVID-19 response but mainly to pay for unchanged government spending mispriorities.

The biggest economic lesson of 2020 is clear – the government has a vital role in economic development especially in times of crises. COVID-19 hit the entire world and the difference was in how each country dealt with it. The public has a right to decent governance which civil society groups and many other concerned Filipinos have been asserting throughout the year, many even at great risk to their lives and liberty.

Sustained administration disinformation and diversionary tactics seek to hide a plain fact: the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic and economy is behind the worst economic collapse in the region and in Philippine history. The coming year can be better only if the people keep working at changing the government and governance for the better.

As Rizal of course also asserted: “There are no tyrants where there are no slaves.” #

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