Not in a good place

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Rice planting | Photo by Pradeep Kumar via Wikimedia Commons

First, it was the pandemic. Then, it was politics. It is the global contraction triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Different times but similar lessons are being taught – and most unlearned.

It is not as though they did not discuss the challenges of the pandemic at length because they were. By and large, they covered every base. With a world in virtual paralysis for almost two years, there was little they could do except communicate virtually. The internet alone connected most of us and provided the platform for expressed reflection, discussion, and sharing of many insights.

The question is whether we learned. The obvious answer is yes and no, meaning we learned some and not others. Or learned some but not enough to follow through. Maybe, the pandemic was not long enough, and the easing of Covid-19 has made many believe that we have an old normal to go back to. As long as we do not realize that we have to create a new operating system, the same lesson will be taught by different teachers.

Globally, then, the need for sympathy and cooperation that was primordial when the pandemic was at its worst suspended most of the violent confrontations. Many nations, in fact, began to find ways to help one another, such as sharing vaccines. The pandemic taught us that there could be common threats that we have to address together as one global village – and we did.

But the threat did not stay at a hyper level long enough. As it gradually eased, old animosities resurfaced and economies, from being collaborative, returned to the hard competition. That is the old normal, and that is where we are proceeding towards. Also, the pandemic did not collapse the economic system. It shook economies but did not break them down.

The fact that billionaires earned trillions in this period was not only scandalous; it bared the fundamental inequality of men and nations. The fact that the powerful used their positions to profit with the least of accountability during a health calamity negated the compassion and generosity of the rest of society. Clearly, they did not learn deep lessons.

Politics abroad widened the rift of pre-pandemic days, as domestic politics did the same here. The greater the turmoil, the more opportunity for carpetbaggers and tyrants to profit and control. While the global economy remains weakened by the pandemic, the Russian war on Ukraine chokes it even more. From fuel to food and everything else in between, the contraction will cause hunger and desperation.

So, here we are in the Philippines. Unfortunately, our fundamental basis for vote-buying is not hard evidence but the stories from millions of voters about how much they were paid to vote. Thirty-one million are supposed to have voted for the new president and the vice-president. Most are poor, we are told, following the economic categorizations of Philippine society. They heard and then believed in P20/kilo rice. Many also believed in the Tallano gold, part of fairy tales that went around before money took over on election day.

Elections are over, and voters made whatever money is, by now, spent and gone. The Filipino poor, below and above the poverty line, are now in trouble. They still need rice and pay way over P20/kilo with projections to pay even more. Other food items are also going up, and the family budgets of the poor are concentrated on food. Fuel, translating to transportation and electricity costs, rose even faster.

In fact, they were already in trouble during the pandemic. While the food was also adequate during long lockdown periods, they could not easily reach where people lived. Today, food is just as available and can be delivered to our doorsteps, but one has to be able to afford them. That is not the case for many.

As a country, we were warned that we must prepare for hard times. That was the first lesson of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the beginning, the government had to budget and distribute food for as many as 80% of Filipino families. The difference today compared to two years ago is we are not locked down. But the more significant difference is that our economy could go into a tailspin if the new president borrows another 6 trillion as the old president.

What are other immediate options available? Realistically, none except to borrow again, to subsidize again, until international funders close the faucets of loans.

Partisan politics may be over, although that is not just the responsibility of voters. The politicians, and more so those in power, must take the lead in crossing the line of competition towards the arena of cooperation. Are they capable of doing that?

The next in line are the non-poor among us who can help the marginalized, even those who voted the other way. Only a higher degree of togetherness in the move to help the hungry and the sick can address the suffering of the needy. We must find a way to get food to the hungry and care and medicine to the sick. Do we still have the heart to do this?

The government will try as well, but it will not have enough. History has shown us that over and over again.

Think food. Think community. Think productivity. After a disastrous political exercise, except for the 31 million who should be celebrating but are not, bayanihan is most critical, but we are not in the mood. In difficult times, our strength is our togetherness, but we are not there. We are not in a good place, but we do not know how to get out of it.

Maybe hardship is the only teacher we will listen to. Please, not too much, not too long.

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