Philippines: Redeeming the time

Last Wednesday’s broadsheets quoted Vaccine Czar Carlito Galvez, Jr. warning the Filipino public “to brace for another surge in COVID-19 infections by June or July.” This sounds good, but it could also be bad.

How Secretary Galvez came to this conclusion escapes us. However, this is a good indication that a sense of anticipation has finally dawned among our health authorities. All we need to see is decisive action to be fully convinced. He could not have said it better: “We have to expect the worst when we are planning something and we are now preparing for it. Until such time that there is a definite cure for COVID, that is the time that we will see what we call economic recovery.”

We need to avoid the worst of two situations. The first is the inability to manage the pandemic and allow the virus to spread with its more contagious mutations. The second is to be forced again to lock down without end because our public health system is just too enfeebled. The economy might end up in a double dip this year. Both outcomes are undesirable because joblessness could only worsen, sending more Filipinos below the poverty line.

The odds are great.

We are seriously handicapped, as shown by our poor scores in an independent assessment of 53 major economies’ resiliency in COVID mitigation. Therefore, if Secretary Galvez’ warning comes to pass in mid-year, and that is barely one month and a half away, we could be in deep trouble.

Bloomberg’s COVID Resilience Score paints the global map from orange to light orange, signifying relatively weak ability in COVID management; and light blue to blue, the marker for relatively reasonable level of COVID management.

The Philippines is in the light orange group, 35th in a field of 53 major economies with a score of 51.9. Last February, the country was ranked higher at 32nd. New Zealand, Singapore and Australia stood as the strongest in containing COVID with a score of nearly 74 and above.

Scores are based on two general criteria, namely COVID status and quality of life, each with sub-components including vaccine coverage for COVID status, and lockdown severity, community mobility and GDP forecast for quality of life. We had more light blues in COVID status while more oranges marked our quality of life. With sustained increase in infection and limited vaccine rollout, our lockdown was severe and prolonged while community mobility was limited.

How is global vaccine rollout doing?

Bloomberg tracks this down, too. As of April 14, 2021, more than 814 million jabs have been given across 152 countries, or only 5% of the global population.

What is sobering here is Bloomberg’s somber analysis: “None of these shots, on its own, is enough to inoculate a global population of some 7.8 billion people. But together they represent humanity’s best chance of ending a scourge that has claimed more than 2.6 million lives and triggered global economic calamity.”

In the US, some 192 million doses have been administered. China and India, the world’s most populous nations are catching up with 172 million and 111 million, respectively. While the US record translates to 30% of its people, China and India’s efforts were good enough to cover only 6% and 4% of their huge populations. These three vaccine frontrunners could inoculate their citizens at a rate of between 3.4 to 4.2 million doses a day.

While the wealthiest 27 countries account for 39% of all administered vaccines, they only constitute 11% of the global population. Access to vaccines cannot be more uneven than that.

In Southeast Asia, Indonesia tops with 15.91 million doses covering only 3% of its equally huge population. Singapore, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam have rolled out their vaccines but the coverage has remained undeniably low. Vietnam’s success in virus control reduces vaccination to a supplemental protection. Its public health readiness and facilities are just excellent even as it locked down its territory and economy at the beginning of the pandemic early last year.

In the case of the Philippines, some 923,000 doses have been launched covering 0.4% of its 108 million people. This performance is just comparable to the US’ state of Idaho with almost 922,000 doses to protect nearly 27% of its population.

The other revealing statistics from Bloomberg, sourced from Johns Hopkins University, is the effect of vaccine rollout on mortality trends.

For the frontrunners in administering vaccines — Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the UK, and the US — the chart here is quite clear that once the vaccines came on stream at the beginning of 2021, COVID cases have declined. In the US, with the dramatic drop in the number of deaths, some states have eased on the use of face masks. Schools have reopened along with restaurants and cinemas.

The Bloomberg assessment also included some good reference to the World Bank’s study that extreme poverty has been on the decline since the 1990s. However, the pandemic pushed this up for the first time in 2020. This is expected to continue in 2021.

This was also the thrust of the latest blog from the IMF released last Wednesday. Alfred Kammer, director of the Fund’s European Department, correctly pointed out that while Europe suffered another COVID upsurge, the rollout of safe and effective vaccines proved crucial. Industrial production is slowly reviving even as services continue to shrink because of limited mobility. The Fund expects pre-pandemic growth could be restored next year.

All up, global eyes continue to be on the virus mutations and weakness in vaccine administration. The global implication is that vaccine production and logistics should be stepped up even as some countries are about to achieve their herd immunity goal in a few months. This might as well be Europe’s singular contribution to the infected world.

Secretary Galvez’ warning about another upsurge in the Philippines by the middle of the year makes it imperative for the Government to intensify our health protocols and accelerate the launch of any available vaccine.

Should lockdown be re-imposed, our health authorities might as well use this timeout to once and for all make testing cheap or, better still, free; tracing automated; isolation facilities expanded in areas accessible to people. Contracting COVID in the Philippines is like being meted with a death sentence or condemned to bankruptcy. And, yes, we are not quite out of the woods yet so these basic steps that we should have taken last year will have to be done again. That should enable us to go into selective lockdowns with a manageable economic fallout. This is one clear lesson of 2020.

Bloomberg’s survey should always resonate with our authorities; that they need to bone up on sustaining policy support to economic recovery especially once the vaccines are out in a big way to reduce the nation’s vulnerability to the virus. Job retention worked wonders for small business and the labor sector and their families so this can be considered again in public intervention policy. The Fund would call this a fiscal booster shot. Monetary policy cannot be more useful now that it is running out of its ammunition as inflation gathers momentum.

The risks are deeper economic scarring and more voluntary quarantine. For many countries, Bloomberg observed widespread hesitation to get the jabs. If anything, its narrative teaches that success in COVID mitigation with the least disruption appears to rely less on forced compliance and more on governments fostering a high degree of trust. Therefore, we need better articulation of public health policy and a clearer roadmap ahead to inspire public ownership and cooperation. New Zealand implements a four-level alert system that walks people through several steps in case of another outbreak.

Without doubt, a bounce back can be inspired with smarter use of whatever time is in our hands. Secretary Galvez’ warning leaves us with no other option but to act now.

Diwa C. Guinigundo is the former Deputy Governor for the Monetary and Economics Sector, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). He served the BSP for 41 years. In 2001-2003, he was Alternate Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC. He is the senior pastor of the Fullness of Christ International Ministries in Mandaluyong.