Is it fair to describe government as ‘incompetent’?

I rolled my eyes when the Presidential Spokesman and COVID-19 protocol breaker (say hello to the dolphins!) declared that the government’s COVID response is “excellent.”

While most of our regional neighbors have put the pandemic behind them and are well on their way towards rebuilding their economies, the Philippines finds itself in the midst of a more violent infection surge, far worse than what we experienced in 2020. This has left the government with no choice but to impose an Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ, the strictest quarantine level) over Metro Manila and surrounding provinces all over again.

The ECQ comes as a painful blow to the micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) which are just now recovering from the losses of 2020. Now, they must absorb more losses (if they can) which significantly shortens their cash runways to stay open. Thousands more MSMEs are expected to fall into insolvency and this means more job layoffs. As far as the welfare of our people are concerned, the ECQ has made their sad plight even more unbearable.

One out of every 11 Filipinos are unemployed and one out of every six are underemployed. Worse, one in every 6.6 Filipinos are living in abject poverty.

While Malacanang pats itself on the back for a job well done, the international press has declared President Duterte’s government’s COVID response as the most incompetent in the region. This was written not only by Nikkei Asia but also by The Diplomat, The Straits Times, and many other respected media channels.

“Incompetent” is a harsh word that carries serious implications. Certainly, it should not be dispensed without serious consideration, especially when said toward a government.

As a Filipino, the words of the international press were offensive — but I am finding it difficult to disagree with them. As I reviewed the events that led up to the recent surge of infections and the second ECQ, I cannot help but think that indeed, the government’s actions were laced with distorted personal biases, simplistic thinking, political considerations, and, yes, downright incompetence. Let me look back….

When news that a highly infectious virus from China threatened to trigger widespread infections in the Philippines, President Duterte responded by belittling the situation. He said, and I quote, “there is nothing to be afraid of with this Corona thing”…. He also said “maliit na bagay ito sa buhay natin” (This is a small thing in our lives). These statements tell me that the President did not bother to consult expert virologists or epidemiologists as due diligence would dictate. Neither did Health Secretary Francisco Duque raise red flags on the gravity of the threat. The President maintained a cavalier attitude towards the virus even if what was at stake was the very health and wellbeing of our people.

This cavalier attitude was exemplified again when the President refused to close our borders to Chinese visitors even if the rest of the region did so already. More weight was given on not offending the “feelings” of his Chinese demigods rather than safeguarding the health and wellbeing of our people. Sec. Duque even defended the President’s position in a Senate hearing. True enough, the first two COVID cases recorded in the country were a Chinese couple who arrived as tourists.

When infections escalated in March 2020, the government responded by fear mongering and enforcing a militaristic lockdown that affected the entire island of Luzon and key cities in the Visayas and Mindanao. The move turned out to be disastrous as it immobilized the economy for at least four months. It consigned a multitude of businesses to bankruptcy and instigated the massive layoff of workers. All these caused the economy to register the largest economic contraction since World War 2. In retrospect, a surgical lockdown (confined to our smallest political units, the barangays) would have been more effective, but the government could not establish a tracking and tracing mechanism to permit this.

What is truly regrettable is that the lockdown was not maximized to bolster testing capacities. Even today, testing remains localized among a few LGUs and private corporations. Neither did the government put a tracking and tracing system in place. That too was left to the LGUs to do. The government tracing app was only rolled out this month, a whole year after the first ECQ was declared (it is not even certain if the app has been debugged yet). As for medical capacities, although quarantine centers were established, little was done to increase the number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds in anticipation of a succeeding case surges. Instead of focusing on the anti-COVID response, Malacanang squandered the precious time in lockdown inflicting political revenge against ABS-CBN. It was a reckless and selfish move that Congress kowtowed to.

Upon passage of the Bayanihan laws, the disbursement of financial assistance to indigents was fraught with corruption. Financial aid for struggling tourism enterprises was diverted to “tourism infrastructure” instead, which is another word for congressional pork barrel.

As if the economy had not been clobbered enough by the 9.5% contraction in 2020, the government organized the smallest stimulus package in the region at only 5.88% of GDP. This, compared to 25.35% for Singapore, 22.73% for Malaysia, 15.96% for Thailand, 10.94% for Indonesia, and 10.12% for Vietnam. It was more important for the government to maintain its “investment grade” rating than give the economy the financial stimulus it needs to recover quickly.

Vaccination is the silver bullet to end this pandemic. But as has become the usual story, the government dropped the ball in the vaccine order procedure. Someone (name withheld from the media) forgot to remind the President that vaccine makers require an Indemnification Law to be in place before vaccines can be shipped out. Congress had to rush the passage of the Indemnification Bill last February, but not without delaying the vaccine delivery.

As for the Department of Health (DoH), it’s cold logistics chain was still not in place as of end-March due to a failed bidding process for third party logistics providers. The bidding was declared a failure since bidders “failed to comply with all the requirements” of the DoH. In truth, it was the DoH who dropped the ball since its request for quotation (ROQ) did not disclose the number of vaccines to be received, stored, and deployed, the schedule of vaccine delivery and location of drop-off points. These details are vital for the formulation of accurate quotations. Naturally, the bidding exercise failed.

The national vaccination program is way behind schedule. As of April 17, the National Vaccination Operations Center reported that only 1,264,811 people have received their first jab of the vaccine. At this rate, it will take the DoH 12 years to achieve herd immunity.

Notwithstanding multiple missteps on the government’s part and especially the DoH, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire had the temerity to blame the Filipino people for the recent surge in infections, accusing us all of violating safety protocols. Three points: First, she forgets that the biggest violators are her colleagues in government — Debold Sinas, Harry Roque, Koko Pimentel, and Benjamin Magalang, among many others who weren’t caught on camera. Second, Vergeire prefers not to take responsibility and instead, blame others for the disaster her department is partly responsible for causing. Third, her hubris reflects the general attitude of government in that they cannot see beyond their own blunders. It is painful for me to think that my hard earned taxes pay this woman’s salary.

So — Is it fair to describe government as “incompetent”? Can I dispute the international press? I cannot. With everything that has happened in the last 12 months, the international press is justified for their harsh assessment. The situation we are in today is painfully self-inflicted.

Andrew J. Masigan is an economist

Twitter @aj_masigan