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PH in a ‘perfect storm’

/ 04:08 AM October 12, 2021

The results of the Pulse Asia survey conducted last Sept. 6-11 should be required reading in Malacañang: The most pressing national concern Filipinos want the Duterte administration to address is controlling inflation (41 percent), closely followed by increasing the pay of workers (40 percent). Not surprisingly, these were linked to their main personal worries: 70 percent on how to stay healthy and avoid illness, 46 percent on not having enough to eat everyday, and 47 percent anxious about keeping a secure and well-paying job.

Pulse Asia president Ronald Holmes said the September survey results showed that Filipinos continued to grapple with gut issues arising from the battered economy. For many, it’s about surviving not only the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, but also the economic difficulties it has inflicted, especially on the poor.

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The bad news is that since the much awaited economic recovery is hinged on the country being able to resolve the health crisis, that deliverance remains far off, as the Philippines has lurched wildly in its response to the pandemic. On that, the people’s exasperation and displeasure are becoming clear, too: The same Pulse Asia survey said the Duterte administration suffered a six-point drop in public approval for its management of the pandemic.

Global watchers share that assessment, as seen in the Philippines’ COVID-19 response landing at the bottom of two international rankings. The Tokyo-based financial magazine Nikkei Asia’s latest COVID-19 Recovery Index released last week ranked the Philippines last among 121 countries in terms of infection control, vaccination, and mobility. Bloomberg’s COVID-19 Resilience Ranking report, released earlier on Sept. 29, likewise placed the Philippines last among 53 countries in a study that measured economies’ resilience to the pandemic.

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“The Philippines faces a perfect storm in that it’s grappling with the more ferocious Delta variant at the same time as it works with an inadequate testing regime and sees disruptions to its economy and people’s livelihoods as the pandemic continues to rage,” said Bloomberg. Perhaps the only consolation for the Philippines: Other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were also at or near the bottom in both rankings.

The outlook for inflation, which measures the increase in the prices of essential goods and services, is as pessimistic. In an Oct. 4 report, Goldman Sachs Economics Research said it was expecting higher inflation in the Philippines next year due to rising import costs. Pantheon Macroeconomics senior Asia economist Miguel Chanco sees a similar trend: Inflation in the Philippines, he said in a report last week, “will get much hotter before it starts to cool in a sustainable way, from the middle of next year.” The rate of increase in prices of basic commodities could peak to six percent this November, where it is likely to stay until the first few months of 2022. Meanwhile, ING Bank Manila senior economist Nicholas Mapa noted that prices of food items like corn—a staple in the provinces—were on a “substantial” rise in areas outside Metro Manila.

Supply bottlenecks are affecting the distribution of food products. While there are shortages in some areas, others have excess produce. Take the case of the tons of ripe tomatoes harvested in Tinoc town, Ifugao province, that were dumped on open fields late last month due to lack of buyers. Dr. Domingo Mariano, Tinoc municipal agriculturist, said the no-vaccination-no-entry policy at checkpoints was preventing buyers from reaching the markets. Farmer Enza Aguinao said she had to take back at least two metric tons of unsold ripe tomatoes from the Nueva Vizcaya Agriculture Terminal since she had no buyers.

The same problem afflicts pork. Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua has admitted the need to distribute imported pork—which was brought into the country to augment domestic demand and address high prices—more evenly across the country. “Most pork supply is in NCR (National Capital Region), so we propose moving to outside NCR and sell in wet markets. Most imported pork is also sold in supermarkets,” he said.

Given the substantial drop in income among millions of Filipino households whiplashed by unending lockdowns and disruptions in work and mobility, the slightest uptick in inflation would certainly cause acute pain, hence the crying need to address it with dispatch, per the Pulse Asia survey. But the election season has set in, and the Duterte administration has months left to right the course of its erratic, in many ways ruinous, pandemic response. The next administration to be elected in the May 2022 polls faces a gargantuan task: controlling the pandemic, resuscitating the economy, putting food on the table of hungry citizens, and, not least, confronting the trillions in debt it will inherit from this administration.

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