The pandemic caught us all by surprise. And since then, we have had to learn and cope and survive for ourselves, our families, and our communities. But, as often observed, a crisis also presents opportunities for us to not just learn, but also to soul search and find out more about ourselves and our society.
It seems like a lifetime ago when we were celebrated as one of the fastest and one of the most vibrant emerging economies in Asia and the world. During the last two decades, our growth rates, while fluctuating, steadily increased and reached relatively high levels within the last decade. And yet, while our GDP (gross development product) growth rates were high before the pandemic, the country witnessed that the gains of economic growth were not equitably distributed.
Who benefited most from growth? These are the richest people in the country. Every year, the number one, number two, number three differ, but looking closely, they are the same faces. The top 10 or top 15 richest people do not change. Their sources of wealth come mostly from real estate, construction, mall- as well as home-building operations, and banking. In other words, mostly from services. Now, these individuals and their companies are linked to growth—what they call the growth areas. And these areas, mostly in the service sector, are a source of their great wealth. Excluded are those in the agricultural sector, especially farmers and fisherfolk, and those in the informal economy, whereby one estimate comprises from 70 to 80 percent of the total labor force of this country. I’m referring to those independent, self-employed, small-scale producers, and distributors of goods and services. Workers in the informal economy are for the most part not covered by the country’s labor laws and regulations. When the pandemic struck, obviously, they bore the brunt in the informal economy.
More systemic issues have been confronting the health sector, which had been worsened by the pandemic. We all know that majority of our people are using their resources rather than falling back on a public fund to support their health expenditures. We know, for example, that six out of 10 Filipinos die without seeing a doctor. We additionally know that there is a very high percentage of maternal deaths. Because of poverty, many Filipinos are dying from preventable, treatable diseases. And then we are looking at high levels of inequalities in accessing quality healthcare. Moreover, we know that there is a need to care for our carers. Our health workers, Filipino nurses, and medical technicians are among the lowest paid in the region.
When the pandemic struck, existing inequalities worsened. A new dimension that came in was the digital divide, which was already huge. The digital divide became even much more pronounced because there were so many public schools, so many teachers, and many more students who had either no access to the gadgets, had no access to the internet, or had very limited access, if there was any. This is a challenge that the Department of Education and many other of our people are facing.
Based on the foregoing, we realize that dropout rates will surely increase. Of the 27 million learners in primary and secondary schools, perhaps only 23 million will be enrolled. Many private schools are closing down, and many of the students in the private sector are migrating to public schools.
Across different countries, it is notable that the Philippine government is very active in providing social protection measures compared to other countries. It’s also worth noting, however, that in a Social Weather Stations survey, 72 percent of Filipino families, which is a relatively good number, said that they benefited from the government’s cash assistance program.
The problem is that our social protection system is hamstrung by this targeting mindset, which can be disastrous especially in the context of a pandemic where a broad swath of the population needed support. And here we were targeting, in fact, only a percentage of each barangay, when oftentimes the entire barangay needs the support. This is precisely why, during this time, Social Watch came out with a position paper saying that we should practice group universalism. Why don’t we provide Social Amelioration Program (SAP) to low-income barangays? Rather than pick and choose among families within that barangay, why don’t we target the poorest barangay and give everyone the necessary support? Targeting the poorest barangay would help expedite the much-needed aid.
Furthermore, let us promote a national identification (ID) system that gives visibility to all citizens so that they can avail of and access their rights to social services and social protection measures, especially when they need it. As many of us are well aware, it is hard to target those who are left behind for as long as they do not show up in our database. I refer to persons with disabilities, senior citizens, indigenous peoples, and others.
Let’s enact the Magna Carta of Workers in the Informal Economy (MACWIE), an advocacy legislative measure of many informal workers’ organizations. What this bill aims to do is, among others, allow informal workers’ organizations and their members to register with the LGUs or the national government. By registering, they become visible, and they gain access to social security and social protection.
Finally, we also need to increase social spending for human development, such as for education, health, water, sanitation, housing, including for those in the care economy. Why? First, because it is a moral imperative and a matter of rights; and second, it makes good economic sense. Increasing spending for education and health enhances the productivity of our citizens and our capacity for innovation. Moreover, it creates jobs that are most needed. If there is one thing that has been underscored by the pandemic, it is that doctors and nurses, teachers, among others, are essential workers.
In addition, let us be mindful that we progressively finance social policies. In other words, we protect lower-income families from, for example, increased taxes. We promote the bayanihan spirit, meaning that those who can pay more should give more. These are the richest corporations and high-network individuals. And let us prevent wasteful spending.
Development strategies that reduce poverty and inequality should be prioritized. Since politics is at the center of development, it is important to tip the balance of power so that the rights and interests of the poor and socially excluded groups are prioritized, resulting in more redistributive outcomes.
I would like to end with some words from Arundhati Roy, who wrote that “while the pandemics have forced us to break with the past, now comes the opportunity to imagine a new world… We can choose to walk through this world dragging our old prejudices and hatred, or we can walk through this world lightly, with little luggage and ready to imagine another world and, particularly, ready to fight for the world that we want.”
Ma. Victoria R. Raquiza of Social Watch Philippines wrote this opinion piece to emphasize the vital role of social policies, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable families reeling from the impact of the pandemic. Raquiza shared her reflections during the webinar organized by Oxfam Pilipinas entitled “A Better Normal: Civil society reflections on COVID-19” as the Philippines was experiencing an upsurge in COVID-19 cases in September 2020.