Record COVID-19 cases not convincing economic planners to change tack

Prinz Magtulis - Philstar.com
Record COVID-19 cases not convincing economic planners to change tack
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III (top) and Acting Socioeconomic Planning chief Karl Kendrick Chua (bottom) has been at the forefront of fixing the economic damage from the pandemic.
File photos

MANILA, Philippines — Not even the Philippines’ record-breaking coronavirus cases can force President Rodrigo Duterte’s economic managers to change their pandemic fighting strategies.

Instead, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III and Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua insisted on their typical tack of keeping lockdowns to a minimum and controlling spending, over a year since the health crisis started, at which point many see the country is back to a grim square one.

“We need to continue managing risks as Covid cases rise. We do this by focusing on localized quarantines and addressing the sources of highest risk so that the jobs/livelihood of the far majority will not be affected,” Chua told reporters in a Viber message.

With more granular lockdowns also come the government’s decision to stay pat against more fiscal stimulus. “The DOF (Department of Finance) has always advocated a policy of conserving all our resources in anticipation of a recurrence of the contagion,” Dominguez said separately.

These latest statements from economic policymakers suggest that while the COVID-19 cases have spiked to a record 7,999 on Saturday, there is no turning back from their tough stance of fiscal prudence that many viewed insufficient to address the current struggles of Filipinos and get them back on their feet.

Observers have blamed the spike in cases on economic managers’ prematurely relaxing restrictions last June, one that accelerated as Christmas holidays approached last October. Those decisions were predicated on the vaccines starting rolling out in the first 3 months of the year, but which is now suffering roadblocks from tight supply brought partly by delayed procurement.

On the other hand, Chua argued that keeping lockdowns tight would have proliferated joblessness and hunger that would have only exacerbated Filipinos’ hardships.

Indeed, he said “the issue we face now is not economy vs health. It is the total health of the people, whether from Covid, non-Covid sickness or hunger.” Last year, six other diseases topped COVID-19 as killers, with cases of heart disease and hypertension up year-on-year.

But for Marikina Rep. Stella Luz Quimbo, an economist, lockdowns and keeping people alive and their welfare protected can be attained simultaneously. In a series of tweets on Saturday, Quimbo noted that between the Philippines and Malaysia, the latter’s cases have peaked and going down already— with COVID-19 exacting far less economic damage than at home.

“The figure with Malaysia begs the question: what have they done differently? We both partially opened up, Malaysia even held their elections. Then COVID cases increased,” she said.

“6 economic stimulus packages including income replacement for those under quarantine, and wage subsidies. That’s the BIG difference: they continue to provide ayuda. We did not,” she explained.

This hesitation to provide more direct aid has been obvious. Quimbo and House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco has drafted a P400-billion Bayanihan 3 bill, the third set of pandemic budgetary response, but the bill is stuck at the Lower House as economic managers that will implement it once enacted opposed it.

Bayanihan 3 is supposed to resume direct cash subsidies for pandemic victims, one that has been abandoned in the 2021 budget after the government spent P200 billion in social amelioration program last year, P50 billion in small firm assistance, plus around P40 billion in other aid under the Bayanihan to Recover As One Act or Bayanihan 2 which will remain in effect until June 2021.

As April approaches, and Duterte set to revisit national quarantine regimes, Dominguez said: “We will examine all available facts and weigh the knowledgeable opinions from domestic and international sources, to arrive at a recommendation for action.”

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