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A year to forget

/ 05:05 AM December 31, 2020

Finally we end the worst year the world has experienced since the world wars, and in some ways beyond maybe.

The impact on our lives has been, quite simply, horrendous. The impact on national economies disastrous. It has led to widening inequality as the have-nots have even less, and the haves have even more.

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The little guy is hurt the most. Small businesses have been decimated, while the new, a scant 20 years in existence, IT giants have grown to astronomical numbers. Amazon’s revenues reached $233 billion in 2018 from about $34 billion in 2010. In 2020, the budget for the whole of the Philippine government was one third of that, $85.2 billion, to support 108 million people. COVID-19 has changed our lives in unimaginable ways, and will continue to do so. We’re entering a “new normal.”

The Philippines entered 2020 in good shape. Its finances were strong thanks to a competent economic team led by Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez. Growth approaching 7 percent was assured. Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) show that 16.6 percent or about 17.6 million Filipinos were poor in 2018, lower than the 23.5 million in 2015. Unemployment was a low of between 5 and 6 percent. Businesses were confident of a healthy year. Then COVID-19 struck and health went out the window. The economy followed. Our expected forecast of up to 7 percent GDP growth for 2020 turned into a -10 percent decline in the first three quarters.

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Hardest hit were the ones we’d least like to see suffer: the small guys. And those sectors where interaction of people is a major part of their business: retail, tourism, hospitality, restaurants, travel, malling. All the things we like to do are no longer possible due to physical distancing.

Lockdowns (they call them quarantines, but as they restrict movement, lockdown seems a far better word to me) have gone on at sporadic levels for 10 months now. And it still remains in our capital to a degree that limits our activities—and will into next year. A most notable impact has been on us being able to move around. Traffic in Manila is worse than in our normal years, because public transport has been greatly reduced. People are using one-passenger cars instead of multi-passenger trains, buses, and jeepneys. This lack of public transport has meant that businesses cannot fully recover the way they’d like to.

Much of our problem in conquering COVID-19 is that we can wear masks, and mostly do, but can’t maintain physical distance. The poor, and even the not so poor, are crammed together in what can only be called slums. There’s no possibility of standing one or two meters apart. Inches would be a better measure.

Government after government has promised solutions, but never done them. The Singaporean public housing scheme would seem to be the way to go—but it has to be done, not endlessly promised.

COVID-19 has exposed the wounds, the weaknesses in the health system. Hospitals are inadequately equipped. Too many doctors and workers have fled overseas to where they can make a decent living. PhilHealth has been mired in fund-stealing scandal. On the positive side, COVID-19 could be the impetus to now make the changes the health system needs. But it’s hard to see how that can happen when Congress cuts the health budget, instead of expanding it. One can’t blame Congress, as the Department of Health (DOH) couldn’t spend the money given it last year, so why would it next year? The DOH needs to improve its act.

Many industries have now restored their operations to 70 percent. But others, specifically those engaged in tourism, travel, leisure, and recreation dining, and much of boutique shops, hardly improved from their depressed state. Notably, in the second quarter, tourism-related industries like hotels, resorts, tours and travel services had nearly zero sales.

On the positive side, what this disaster has done is to accelerate the shift to an IT world. It’s a rocket ship of change.

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Working from home has proved amazingly successful (I’m WFH writing this, and have been since March), made possible by Zoom and webinars. No longer do you sit an hour or two on Edsa to get to a meeting. You spend one minute entering a Zoom conference. But we’ve lost the camaraderie that the office, the mall, the restaurant provide, and that people desire.

Filipinos are an optimistic people, but you can’t be optimistic after what COVID-19 did to the world. The glass is three-fourths empty. Where a level of optimism exists is 2021. But it will still be a dislocated world struggling to understand what’s happened. This year is the year we shifted from the physical to the virtual world.

All of us have been hurt by 2020. It’s been a year we’d like to forget, but certainly never will.

Email: [email protected]

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TAGS: 2020, coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, Like It Is, Peter Wallace
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