Not an emergency anymore

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

| Photo by theycallmeswift via Creative Commons/Flickr

We have all sustained a strange and, for most, miserable life under a pandemic. March 2020 to September 2021 will be 18 months of disruption with normalcy as the first and universal victim. For a huge sector, though, being disrupted means hell for those who belong to the lower half of the economic and social strata. Those who thought they were far from the clutches of poverty are not so sure anymore. Only the topmost 20% know they are okay financially, but they are afraid of infection and death.

The pandemic is a collective challenge to our society, even to the world. Truly, it was an emergency in March of last year and the succeeding months after that. In the beginning, all of us, and I mean literally all, were groping our way to fighting an enemy we could not see. Lockdowns and quarantines were the prescribed protocol of defense, which meant a population that was low on savings could not survive. A situation like that is harrowing for governance when officials are guessing like everybody else.

“Truly, it was an emergency in March of last year and the succeeding months after that. In the beginning, all of us, and I mean literally all, were groping our way to fighting an enemy we could not see.”

An emergency that it was, special resources had to be raised immediately. The Bayanihan to Heal as One was enacted by Congress to give a special budget and additional authority for the President as required by the situation. I can remember that the budget was for an estimated P275 billion. I know, too, that they incorporated special monetary assistance of P5,000 – P8,000 per month for two months in the budget – and it was meant to target 18 million Filipino families.

I do not know what happened to the money. There were many adverse news reports about the inefficiency in the implementation and how many barangay officials began to pocket some of the funds. What was most important to me was that the government looked at the plight of 18 million Filipino families and immediately moved to ensure they could feed them. At the same time, mobility was taken away from them by quarantine rules.

Last 2020, there were 20.2 million Filipino families. The first Bayanihan fund budgeted P5,000 – P8,000 per family per month for two months for 18 million families. It amazed me that they would give 18 million out of 20 million assistance, which meant 90% of Filipino families. This sudden change of attitude belied all the fancy statistics which the government has been feeding us all along about how only less than 30% were below the poverty line. I was happy that an emergency was forcing the government to admit the bitter truth about real poverty in our country openly.

“Still, why would I complain if the government wanted to help 90% instead of 70%? If it had the funds, why not? Critical for me was the lower 50-60% because, throughout history, self-rated poverty has fluctuated between 40-60%.”

Of course, I believe that the top 20% were not in need, yet I budgeted half of them together with the lower 80%. Still, why would I complain if the government wanted to help 90% instead of 70%? If it had the funds, why not? Critical for me was the lower 50-60% because, throughout history, self-rated poverty has fluctuated between 40-60%. That is the constant vulnerable population. In normal times, however, the government would rather cut that in half. Maybe it shows a better picture. Maybe, the government does not have to double its budget for the poor.

Despite the funds from Bayanihan One, if those funds were properly distributed, of course, 30% were experiencing hunger. The fears of government were borne out, though, when hunger doubled by May 2020 versus December 2019, then went all the way to 30% by August. Another fund had to be raised, and it happened. However, the P5,000 – P8,000 per family allocation was not for 18 million families, and it was not meant for two months. The government’s finances were running low even then, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel.

I am situating my recall of the whole of last year because it could rightly be considered an emergency. It was less of an emergency when additional budgets had to be coughed up because the target population became more compressed. In other words, the intensity of the emergency lessened when the funds were running low. Thankfully, though, the private sector had a massive reach out to the hungry in the second semester and mitigated hunger levels.

Beginning 2021, the pandemic cannot be anymore considered an emergency. This whole year would not be a repeat of last year unless we learned nothing from our experience and the experience of other countries in the world. Yes, we have a health emergency but not a national emergency. We are not in the dark anymore. We have found ways to adapt, not totally, but more than enough to have new patterns and predictability. That kind of emergency is over in that sense and can only be claimed by sheer intellectual laziness and incompetence. Or corruption, which makes it not stupid but criminal.

“Yes, we are scrambling for funds, but we are not scrambling from ignorance anymore. And we have a private sector that has not been allowed to use its expertise and resources enough – as if paid bureaucrats can outplay the keen minds and bold hearts of the most successful people of society.”

Yes, we are afraid of infections and death. But after hundreds of billions and almost two years of adjusting our facilities, systems, and resources, we know enough if we have a thinking government. Yes, we are scrambling for funds, but we are not scrambling from ignorance anymore. And we have a private sector that has not been allowed to use its expertise and resources enough – as if paid bureaucrats can outplay the keen minds and bold hearts of the most successful people of society. Of course, the government has tried to get the most resources from the private sector but only to go where the government wants them to go.

Yes, we have a mountain of challenges ahead of us, and we have half of our population to carry on our shoulders throughout our journey. But we have given our obedience and turned our backs to our own capacity to chart our recovery. This is our fate, our country, our lives. We must shake the cobwebs from our minds and get back our boldness and courage. If we do not do it, nobody, no one, can and will.

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