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No Free Lunch

Nation in great peril

/ 04:06 AM February 09, 2021

While the pandemic’s toll on our economy has been particularly severe, the most telling has been the human cost of the economic decline, the implications of which could stay with us well into the future. This had been made even worse by natural calamities at the start and toward the end of the year, which brought great destruction to properties, crops, and human lives. The pandemic and our response to it did not only batter the economy; they also seriously endanger the nation’s very future through the harm they are doing to our single most abundant resource: our people.

Before the pandemic hit, we liked to pride ourselves on the “demographic sweet spot” the country is entering, referring to the preponderance of a young, working-age population tracing to our unusually high fertility rates in past decades. As the argument goes, this will give us an edge in the coming decades over most countries of the world, especially the more affluent ones for which impending labor shortages endanger the future prospects of their economies. But we have a dominantly young, productive population who are projected to far outnumber our retired and elderly dependent population for decades to come — especially because we also continue to have a broad base of children in our population profile. Thus, it is said, we can look forward to a dynamic and highly productive economy that would outgrow the rest of the economies of the region, and indeed the world.

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But it’s reckless to think that our future hangs on the quantity of our working-age population alone. Obviously, quality matters as much, and it is this that the pandemic-induced lockdowns and resulting deep recession is seriously compromising with every passing day. It’s bad enough that we did not invest and do enough in the past to nurture our most precious resource. Whether in health and nutrition or in education, our track record has been pathetic, even as these concerns are so basic that these ought to have taken primacy in our leaders’ attention and efforts all along.

It’s not undue alarmism to be making these observations; the evidence stares us in the face. Official data document our excessively high rates of stunting due to severe malnutrition in Filipino children under five years old. In the 1980s, it was nearly one in every two, and now continues to afflict one in every three (and still one out of two in some areas in Mindanao). The embarrassing fact that our country now ranks at or near the bottom worldwide on various education indicators — and I need not cite the evidence here as these have been amply made public—reveals just how massive our failure has been in setting our nation’s path into the future. A cross-country study had also shown the Philippines having the lowest average IQ among the 10 Asean countries (I can e-mail specific references upon request). It is hard not to associate these dismal results from our traditionally high incidence of child stunting, which brings lifelong damage via permanent impairment to the child’s brain and physical development. It’s also tempting to think that if we’re unhappy about the leaders we elect into office, our lack of political maturity and a more discriminating electorate could well trace to the same traditional failures I speak of.

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And then came COVID-19. Hunger tripled from 2019 levels, surely escalating already high rates of severe malnutrition and stunting in young children. Education has likewise taken a severe blow under a situation that forces remote learning modes, to the great disadvantage of children of the poor and those living in far-flung communities with limited or no connectivity. These developments on the health and education fronts threaten dire long-term consequences for the country.

The more fortunate among us can no longer look the other way because we don’t feel our own lives directly affected now. Those of us in our advanced years have by now probably given up on seeing our country emerge from the rut within our lifetimes. What’s even sadder is that with how too many of our society’s leaders behave now, even our children and grandchildren may not see our nation’s salvation within theirs.

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