A partnership against COVID-19 | Inquirer Opinion
Business Matters

A partnership against COVID-19

When the World Health Organization declared a global COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, and the Philippines declared its own national health emergency and enhanced community quarantine in the same month, we did not yet fully realize the extent of the problem nor its potential duration. However, our instincts told us we should act fast and at scale to help our fellow Filipinos. It was a time that demanded cooperation and unity of intent. We felt that the government and business community should coordinate closely to marshal resources to help those in need.

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Our immediate concern was that many of our marginalized daily wage earners would be without income—and eventually without food—if the lockdown was extended to over one month. So, within days of the lockdown announcement, under the leadership of my brother, Fernando, the business community launched a community feeding program which became known as Project Ugnayan. Working together with the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation (PDRF), Caritas Manila, and around 280 companies, Project Ugnayan started distributing grocery gift certificates to the economically disadvantaged families in the Greater Manila area to enable them to buy food. Eventually, we combined efforts with ABS-CBN, Jollibee’s FoodAID project, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to serve over 2.8 million families and 14.3 million individuals for six to eight weeks after the lockdown was declared. This was a precursor to the consortium approach we later used for the larger COVID-19 response.

After Project Ugnayan, the next set of public-private partnerships was catalyzed by DOF Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, who called me on April 22 to ask if we could help organize more private sector support for the IATF in its war against COVID-19.

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He asked for help on two fronts: First, set up regular IATF-private sector consultations on how to deal with the economic impact of COVID-19; and second, rally the private sector around the testing, tracing, and treating efforts led by National Task Force Against COVID-19 chief implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr.

We agreed to engage and help. We have always recognized the need to take a whole-of-nation approach and support national objectives wherever possible. However, during an unprecedented crisis like COVID-19, the need to cooperate and organize quickly and imaginatively becomes urgent and compelling.

Things moved very quickly after that. On the same day, April 22, Fred Ayala and I set up a Zoom meeting with ADB director Paul Dominguez and principal health specialist Eduardo Banzon, Foundation for Economic Freedom vice chair Romeo Bernardo, and former health secretary Manuel Dayrit to discuss how the private sector could help the IATF on both fronts.

On April 23, Eduardo Banzon organized an exploratory meeting with the Department of Health, ADB, AC Health led by president Paolo Borromeo, and PDRF, which is heavily supported by the business community, represented by chief resilience officer Guillermo Luz.

On April 24, the private sector group (which now included the Metro Pacific Hospitals of the MVP Group, Unilab, and Zuellig Pharma) and the IATF, represented by Secretary Galvez and Undersecretary Vince Dizon, Health Undersecretary Rosette Vergeire, and consultant Dr. Marife Yap, publicly launched Task Force T3, coined by Secretary Galvez for Test, Trace, Treat.

T3 started as a government-private sector partnership whose original goal was to help increase the country’s RT-PCR testing capacity from 4,500 tests per day at the time of launch to 30,000 tests per day by May 30.

Over time, T3’s scope expanded greatly to include the full range of the fight against COVID-19, spanning prevention, testing, tracing, isolation, treatment (One Hospital Command), data management, analysis and insights, LGU playbooks and training, PPEs and funding, and eventually, the critical rollout of the vaccine program. Its membership grew to include virtually all the leading companies in the country, working closely with the lead executive branches of the government.

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From the beginning, we knew we had to create a seamless and transparent public-private partnership model, agile enough to solve problems quickly, and flexible enough to shift strategy and tactics in a very fluid situation. Above all, we needed to build chemistry among partners to keep communication channels open and honest and avoid conflict and disharmony.

Fortunately, an undertaking of such magnitude had its share of leaders to help assemble the required alliance. ADB’s Dominguez and Banzon were instrumental at the inception, introducing key people to each other and recommending who should get involved in the task force. The various leaderships of Secretaries Galvez and Dizon were the glue that kept everybody aligned to the same vision and goals. The medical expertise of former secretary Dayrit and molecular biologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco provided the solid scientific basis upon which key decisions were made. The economic team—led by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, Neda Secretary Karl Chua, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, and Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III—kept tight watch over the economy and, more importantly, secured the funds to procure the vaccines. The strong coordination with local governments was led by Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, MMDA chair Benjamin Abalos Jr., and the Metro Manila mayors. Finally, the expertise provided by Kristine Romano, Jon Canto and their McKinsey team, and Anthony Oundjian and his Boston Consulting Group team provided us the international perspective and benchmarks to measure our policies against other countries.

There were countless others involved—too many to name—but in all cases, there was unique chemistry among the work teams that enabled a free flow of ideas and, more importantly, the identification of solutions. When united around a common objective, public-private partnerships have the power to provide transformative results, especially after such an extended emergency and prolonged economic downturn. In addition, this partnership was built on trust, transparency, vision, and a shared goal for the common good. It is also a partnership that we should consider for future emergencies and to address present-day societal challenges—including improved and more resilient health and education systems, the fight against hunger and malnutrition, and solving the challenges of climate change. This model of the partnership created momentum and results by uniting all players around a common goal of civic engagement to address a critical societal pain point.

Being part of this important and successful initiative has been a pleasure and privilege.

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Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala is chair of Ayala Corp. and cochair of the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation.

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Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).

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