Ides of March, again

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

A two-man team battles a huge blaze … | Photo via Flickr/Creative Commons by Samuel L. King, Jr.

It is the middle of March, and by historical terms, this is a moment when we should beware. March 15, being the middle of March, was attributed to being the Ides, or the middle of March, a traditional feast in the Roman times. From a story that made headlines in the premier city of the world then, Rome, the Ides of March marked Julius Cesar’s assassination.

I have no special alarm system that points out an assassination. In the Philippines, assassinations have no special timetable. People are killed day and night, powerful politicians, professionals like lawyers and doctors, businessmen and businesswomen, rebels, and soldiers, even judges, and fiscals. The Ides of March seems to have no connection to them at all. Assassinations are, most sadly, an all-season activity.

“In the Philippines, assassinations have no special timetable. People are killed day and night, powerful politicians, professionals like lawyers and doctors, businessmen and businesswomen, rebels, and soldiers, even judges, and fiscals.”

There is an alarm out every March, though, and that is about the fire. March being a hot month, fires are quite common. The government, thus, designated it as a month to be especially conscious of fires.

Today, we must add Covid-19, too. There should be a strong alert against the virus because it has a dangerous spike this month. There has been such an explosion of news and attention on the vaccines, from how they are being purchased, on each one’s efficacy, that most probably will find their way here, and when they can come in big volumes. Of course, as a senior citizen with co-morbidities, I have been more than interested.

Thank goodness, there has been no alarm yet on any drought. If fires will be aplenty and drought will hit us these summer months, poverty and hunger will join the spike of Covid. Economic experts from both the public and private sectors had earlier forecasted that the pandemic’s adverse impact on jobs and businesses would continue until 2022. There is the anticipation of some recovery, but it will be gradual until the vast majority is vaccinated.

There are huge and almost scandalous gaps between what government says about poverty and hunger versus what Filipinos themselves say. Self-rated poverty and food-security figures are so much higher than official government statistics. I believe that government must establish new guidelines in measuring poverty and hunger.

Therefore, let me sound the alarm on hunger. When employment and economic activity are not expected to hit their pre-Covid-19 levels, poverty will continue to press hard on the vulnerable, and hunger incidences will continue.

People are tired. Business people and investors feel they have cushioned their employees and suppliers throughout the past full year. Many have collapsed, more than 100,000 businesses from what I read a month ago. Those who are left are pushing the recovery, but they cannot push Covid-19 out.

The poor, even more, are tired, too. They have been tired all their lives, but many improved their situations enough to have been considered living above the poverty line. Covid-19 exposed the kind of parameters that are officially used to measure poverty as largely inaccurate or fragile at the least. Economic delineation below and above the poverty line must be more solid and clear. Today, they are blurred, and this makes government measures unreliable.

There are huge and almost scandalous gaps between what government says about poverty and hunger versus what Filipinos themselves say. Self-rated poverty and food-security figures are so much higher than official government statistics. I believe that government must establish new guidelines in measuring poverty and hunger. High poverty and hunger figures are better real than understated. When people suffer when they get noisy, the government adjusts and tries to help them anyway.

In the first Ayuda or the Bayanihan 1 fund, 80 percent of Filipino families were targeted for assistance. Why 80 percent when poverty was supposed to be in the 20-percentile range? That only means that the government was sensing more than 50% of the vulnerability that it had said were not living in poverty. Why doesn’t the government just set a more realistic or kinder way to identify and measure poverty and hunger? That way, we can all prepare better, including the private sector, which can be coaxed to take on a bigger part of the burden?

Today, there is a greater focus on helping the poor and hungry, not just through subsidy but actual capacity-building programs. I am not accusing the government of apathy. But if the government uses lower than higher figures affecting the poor and the hungry, the difference between official figures and reality are Filipinos who will not be recognized as meriting assistance. Look at the indigent population of DSWD and compare this with self-rated food-poverty. I am not talking about income, only hunger, which mostly indigents experience.

If we have a greater base to help, if that is the truth, so be it. Compressing our poverty and hunger statistics does not help the government and the private sector as well. That is our reality. We are more aware of this on the ground where we live than government figures.

“I do not doubt our recovery. We cannot contain the spirit to survive combined with the spirit to prosper indefinitely. We will need to work harder, but we will make it. “

I only hope that we can make the gap smaller if not eliminate it. With greater accuracy, we can use the whole-of-nation approach in the words of many government officials today. That kind of approach can be effective only when reality from the government’s eyes matches what reality from the eyes of the people is.

We have survived the worst part of the pandemic. While we are still mostly inside a difficult situation, our year-long experience has shown us what works and what doesn’t. This hindsight was not there in the first six months. We also know the vaccines are available after a long process of development. We must wait, but we know this time we are waiting for something. Business is re-opening, slowly, sensitively to the spikes of Covid infections, but re-opening, nonetheless. We are better off today than in 2020.

I do not doubt our recovery. We cannot contain the spirit to survive combined with the spirit to prosper indefinitely. We will need to work harder, but we will make it. I only ask that we do not forget the weakest among us. More than ever, let us not forget them.

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