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No Free Lunch

Burdensome government

A particular social media post circulating in Filipino struck me. Translated into English, it says: “(1) Problem: no rides. Solution: ride bicycles. Government response: P150 bike registration fee; (2) Problem: no jobs. Solution: online selling. Government response: tax online selling; (3) Problem: poultry business losses. Solution: make it up after lockdown. Government response: limit production to give way to imports; (4) Problem: Widespread hunger. Solution: Citizens conduct fund drives to help. Government response: Require DSWD permit before conducting fund raising. Conclusion: it’s not the virus that will kill the people, but our useless government!”

While all that may not be entirely accurate (Agriculture Secretary William Dar has since denied No. 3), one can’t help feel that rather than help, government is out to thwart creative coping mechanisms by Filipinos to current difficulties. People are angry, and lately I’m hearing that anger constantly. Many ask, why haven’t we managed to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections, after three months of immobilizing people and the economy, even as most other countries have done so? Some are now on their second wave of infections, but by all appearances, we’re still in the ascending part of our first.

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It’s hard not to conclude that the lack of definitive progress in the national fight against the pandemic traces mostly to government ineptness. We can’t pin the blame on people for lacking the discipline of physical distancing, when top enforcers of that discipline are seen to defy it. It’s also impossible to enforce such distancing in crowded poor settlements where high population densities preclude it — unless we provide refugee centers, as when natural calamities call for it. Why not now?

The numbers are already out showing how the tradeoff between the lockdowns and people’s economic welfare has hit hard on our economy, and more importantly, on ordinary Filipinos’ lives. It’s an outrage that we hardly have anything to show for incurring this tremendous cost, by way of significant progress in containing the virus. With 7.25 million officially counted as unemployed in April, my Ateneo colleague Geoffrey Ducanes has explained in a policy brief why that figure is still a significant underestimate of the true extent of joblessness the economic freeze has led to.

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Total production and incomes (measured by gross domestic product or GDP) reportedly shrank by 0.2 percent in the first quarter. But we’re far from seeing the worst of it, as only half a month in that quarter was actually affected by lockdown. The massive decline in jobs reported in April (from 41.76 million to 33.76 million, a 19-percent drop from a year ago) suggests the magnitude of decline in production that must have transpired beyond the first quarter. With the second quarter nearly over and the economy nowhere near being back on its feet, expect dire numbers on the GDP fall when they come out in August.

It pains me to see some things our government is doing at a time it should be singularly focused on easing the short- and long-term impact of the COVID-19 crisis on Filipinos. The biggest anomaly by far is the inordinate priority and precious legislative time given to the dangerous and much-opposed anti-terrorism bill. (Even so, I am certain that there is no unanimity in the minds and hearts of our policymakers on this measure that suddenly emerged from the shadows at the worst possible time.)

Many times before, I have cited in this column instances where our government policymakers and bureaucrats appear to be experts in inflicting the most hardship on the ordinary citizen, and now is the worst time for that. Take those new license plates that we were made to pay for over five years ago, which to this date, many have yet to see even the shadow of. And then there are those medical exam rip-offs required to renew drivers’ licenses. For some reason, the Department of Transportation has been particularly notorious in inflicting these burdens on common citizens. Too bad for us, it’s also in transport where the COVID-19 disruptions are and will remain among the most prominent.

Sometimes we can only sigh in utter resignation.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, government COVID-19 response, No Free Lunch
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