‘Oks na oks ba?’
At the onset of 2020, no one could have imagined that this Year of the Rat would inflict upon the entire world a modern equivalent of the bubonic plague. While COVID-19 fatalities (so far numbering about 1.54 million) are far less than those of the bubonic plague (estimated at 25 million), the former’s reach has been more global, has engendered widespread physical and mental trauma, altered the course of history, affected normal human behavior drastically, and stalled the advance of economic well-being. Now, as we approach 2021, the Year of the Ox, will it be, as Filipinos may put it: “Oks na oks”? Hopefully. At best, it cannot but be better than 2020, though it may not be as good as hoped.
There are important factors to consider, some positive and others negative. These must be handled judiciously to avoid either turning positive ones negative or further aggravating negative ones. Without a doubt, the brightest light at the end of this much-extended long dark tunnel is the announcement by a number of noted pharmaceutical companies of having developed effective vaccines in record time. The ongoing debates concerning these vaccines notwithstanding (i.e., are they truly safe, what are the side effects, what is the proper interpretation of their rates of effectiveness, etc.), there appears to be an understandable rush among several countries to corner their own supply of these vaccines sooner rather than later. Already, the United Kingdom has reportedly decided to go all out in acquiring enough vaccines to inject most of its population, with no less than Queen Elizabeth II as highest priority first injectee to set the example for the rest.
The Philippine government has signaled its desire to not be left behind and has announced its intent not only to import a massive supply of the vaccines (about P73 billion worth), but also to make it available to about 60 million willing Filipinos at subsidized rates, or even for free. That’s the good news. The downside is that the first batch won’t arrive here till the second quarter of 2021, at the earliest. One would hope that between now and then, the government would have developed a precise implementation plan for its envisioned national vaccination program. For one thing, there are apparently three vaccines being acquired—Sinovac from China, and the other two from Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson of the United States, respectively. Who gets which vaccine? Where and by whom will the vaccine be dispensed? Will a codified post-vaccination documentation be in place?
I give our authorities the benefit of the doubt toward crafting a good implementation plan. But past experience elicits a heartfelt plea that the last thing we need is a variant of the seemingly arbitrary, inconsistent, and excessively bureaucratic management of the pandemic itself.
This plea assumes greater importance not only to avoid turning a hope-filled development into an annoyingly frustrating one, but also because of the difficult challenge we face in reviving our economy, which is projected to experience a 9-percent decrease in GDP by year-end. This represents a monumental, nearly P2 trillion resource gap needing a relentless, focused effort on the part of our leadership to reposition the economy toward a growth path.
Perhaps aside from stimulus packages and monetary easing, the combination of which provides funds to match a portion of the resource gap, moves toward an adept and rational balancing between a more rapid but better-targeted reopening of the economy and avoiding a resurgence of the pandemic are a must. The former is beset by seemingly endless additional bureaucratic and documentary requirements stifling even the regular activities of every citizen, and consequently the entire economy. The latter requires, among others, the continuing rapid build-up of the country’s health infrastructure.
Finally, beware of the supreme distraction, namely presidential election-year anticipation and its related political maneuverings, as 2021 is effectively the last full year of the current regime. Otherwise, “Let the games begin!” may yet thwart even incipient feelings of “Oks na oks.”
Roberto F. de Ocampo, OBE, is a former finance secretary and was Finance Minister of the Year in 1995, 1996, and 1997.
Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).
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