What Pernia’s resignation tells us

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star
Ernesto Pernia with Duterte Cabinet 2018
Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia (center) chats with other members of President Rodrigo Duterte's Cabinet at the Ritz-Carlton Millenia Hotel in Singapore on the sidelines of the the 32nd Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit on April 28, 2018.
Presidential Photo / Albert Alcain

The story of Orpheus is a good reminder of the times. Skilled, brazen and master of the lyre, Orpheus was a legendary Greek hero with extraordinary musical skills. He was a one-man orchestra whose music moved mountains. But beasts tore him apart, drowning his voice, for fear that he would reveal the secrets of the underworld to humans on earth. 

Secretary Ernesto Pernia, 76, is no Orpheus although he is a well-respected economist. But his voice was no doubt drowned out, perhaps by the same beasts that went after the Greek hero. He himself said it. He talked about being just one of the few dissonant voices in the Duterte administration’s economic team, unheard and ignored. He also talked about an orchestra that was no longer orchestrated. 

“I wanted to stay on, but when the orchestra is not well-orchestrated, you have a little problem. Since I seem to be a dissonant voice among others, I thought I might just quit,” he said in an interview with CNN Philippines on Saturday. 

But must all this happen at this time, when the country is facing a major health and economic crisis? 

Crunch time

The resignation of Sec. Pernia is scary especially at this time because what it really tells us is that the government is as confused as we are, running around like a headless chicken. The orchestra is locked in a disentanglement. Clearly, it’s crunch time for the Duterte administration and his Davao cabal. 

There is intense pressure within the members of the economic team. It’s not an easy decision to make — whether to ease the lockdown by May 1 to help save whatever is left of the economy, or to extend the lockdown until June to have more time to flatten the curve. 

On the first option, there are many factors at play. Many businessmen want it. Giant conglomerates are, in fact, urging the government to adopt a modified lockdown, where malls will reopen and resume 50 percent of their operations, among others.

This isn’t surprising. The SM Group is estimated to be losing P4  billion to P5 billion in monthly mall leasing income because of the lockdown. Consumer spending is practically nonexistent and businesses are not happy about this. Manufacturers’ assembly lines are at full stop. Small and medium enterprises have no business, too. There is a liquor ban and it is hurting alcohol companies like hell. 

Affected stakeholders have reasons to worry and push even for just a modified lockdown with additional safeguards in place. Sec. Pernia, being an economist, is pushing for this as well. 

But, at the same time ­– and here is the reason for another possible extension – lives are at stake and we have yet to flatten the curve. As of this writing, there are 6,087 confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19 in the country, of which 516 have recovered and 397 have died. 

Death by COVID-19 or death by starvation?

Simply put, the choice is between death by COVID-19 or death by starvation. It’s a tough decision to make and it’s no surprise the economic managers are at each other’s throats trying to find the best answer.

The crunch time is real, but it’s more complicated than that. The Duterte administration is trying to survive politically and every decision it needs to make now is influenced by that.

It is under immense pressure to protect its chances of winning the 2022 elections and it knows too well that too many deaths by COVID-19 would no doubt doom its political future.

An administration with plans to stay in power will, thus, lean on this decision – avoid COVID-19 deaths by all means, even at the expense of the economy because anyway death by starvation is almost invisible. It is slow and difficult to count, and there is no conclusive test kit for it unlike the virus. As the ex-court jester said early on during the quarantine, nobody really dies of hunger, or at least not right away. Besides, hunger is nothing new in this country.

But unfortunately for the government, the situation is so bad now that the lines between the two options have already become so blurred. The issues of pandemic, hunger and loss of work have hit home, not just to the 25 million people living in poverty, but to everyone.

Thus, both options are no longer easy and both will only work with actual governance, which also remains wanting.  We see that gap in the conflict between the national and local governments, the slow rollout of the government’s emergency aid, and even in the poor implementation of security measures in checkpoints. 

The result is a government that is as confused as we are and the last thing it needs is a dissonant, non-cooperative voice. 

And this is the sad reality — we will not be able to overcome this crisis as we all hoped for unless decisions are governed by the real need to save this nation of more than 100 million and not just the few.

And so, here we are at a standstill. The orchestra is out of sync and the lonely voices of dissonance are ignored and fed to the beasts. 

Iris Gonzales’ email address is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com 

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