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The Long View

Ghost fleet in Manila Bay

If you check on YouTube you will find videos of Manila Bay from earlier this month, with amazing footage of dozens of gigantic cruise ships waiting for their Filipino crews to finish quarantine. Some videos show Philippine Coast Guard vessels being cheered by the quarantine crews, as they sail past displaying the Philippine flag and playing cheerful music. But what the breathtaking sight of so many immense vessels represents is far from cheerful: thousands of Filipinos being brought home, their prospects for future sailings in doubt. At least the cruise companies have vessels to bring their crews home in the absence of commercial flights; at one point, our own authorities had to forbid the entry of flights from abroad, to manage the flow of returning OFWs who needed quarantining—only for a new issue to arise, which was red tape that kept many of them trapped in quarantine long after they’d been cleared. The President, last Monday, once again had to weigh in to make it clear he had no part in, didn’t approve of, and was in favor of something being done about, what was happening.

What is happening is as ancient as human-kind itself: For all the bluster of the national authorities, communities on the most basic level retreat into themselves. Whether Chinese or Filipino, the mental framework of humankind is the village, and villages set up barricades to keep outsiders out. We have had governments for 30 years saying OFWs are heroes, but the villages those so-called heroes funded were the first to reject them as coming from the infected outside world. The President has taken to periodically appealing for OFWs to be treated humanely, because not even he has enough bullets and bayonets to compel obedience in every corner of the archipelago.

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In many ways, the President has settled on some simple rules to follow as far as his dealing with COVID-19 is concerned. Nothing focuses the mind than have loved ones at risk: As the father of a school-age daughter, it’s obvious that, for him, his decision not to allow the reopening of schools until a vaccine is developed was an easy and logical one to make—one that will surely be applauded by many like-minded parents. Now it will be up to what passes for our government to figure out what to do with this edict: how, for example, to do for public education what so many private educational institutions have been announcing quietly in recent days and weeks—to undertake distance learning for the rest of this year, at a minimum. It’s not as if many parents would have allowed their kids to go back to campus anyway. Still, we can expect the powers-that-be to be divided on the question of home schooling and what resources should be allocated to this.

What passes for our government, too, seems divided in terms of what to pretend to do about the economy. The clearest sign of this cleavage was when Neda chief Ernesto Pernia left the administration, leaving the nominally independent central bank chief Benjamin Diok-no to follow up on his earlier argument about the extent of the damage to the economy and the need for solutions, by making the case, the other day, for more government stimulus. This is the opposite of the secretary of finance, whose approach seems to consist of: first, recycling (“Build Build Build,” though it had already been severely reduced in ambition before the pandemic, to include only programs that could be finished during the present administration); second, reversal (lobbying for “tax reform” was premised on eliminating Peza and other incentives as unnecessary and overgenerous; now the proposal aims to give the President sweeping powers to grant incentives, taking it out of the hands of the professional regulators and making it a kind of discretionary patronage); and third, wringing what survives in our service economy dry, by way of increasing taxes on consumption.

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The best that can be said of this (as some observers do put it) is that we have a replay of World Bank proposals from the 1980s, with probably the same effects: a get-rich-quick retirement plan for today’s officialdom, a retreat to the informal economy for the rest of the public, and a long wait for, hopefully, fresh blood and new thinking if and when the next national elections take place.

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TAGS: build build build, Manila Bay, Philippine Coast Guard
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