In Duterte's final SONA, a clear pandemic game plan is missing

Ramon Royandoyan - Philstar.com
President Rodrigo Duterte is joined by Senate President Tito Sotto and House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco at Congress during his last State of the Nation Address on July 26, 2021.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — Just like his penultimate report to the nation, President Rodrigo Duterte’s final State of the Nation Address lacked a detailed discussion on his pandemic exit strategy.

In what was longest post-EDSA SONA, Duterte touted his administration’s economic “achievements” in the past five years, including enacting bold tax reforms and rescue packages amid the pandemic.

He also took the occasion to revisit a costly regulatory row with Metro Manila’s two water concessionaires that saw the signing of new water deals, as well as berate former broadcast giant ABS-CBN Corp. for supposedly not paying the right taxes despite being cleared by taxmen themselves of any arrears.

But for all that talk, Duterte’s SONA left much to be desired in terms of his pandemic game plan for the rest of his term. If there’s anything that is clear, it’s that he won’t hesitate to put the country under strict lockdowns again as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads in the country.

“If it’s really dangerous, we have to go back to lockdown… If ever it will spread, if something wrong happens, I’ll have to be strict and I have now my word that there will be just like what happened in the early days,” he said.

“Maybe we’ll just have to pray for salvation,” he added.

Nicholas Mapa, senior economist at ING Bank in Manila, was unimpressed. “With the economy still in recession and momentum fading fast, I was hoping to see some emphasis on getting the economy up and running again and back to her former glory,” Mapa said in an e-mailed response to queries.

“Righting the economic ship requires attention on both short and medium term objectives. There was a lot of emphasis on achievements of his administration as well as marching orders to Congress to open up the economy further however we’re still waiting for some emphasis on solving the current recession with the Delta variant very likely forcing us back into another debilitating lockdown,” he added.

Ruben Carlo Asuncion, chief economist at Union Bank of the Philippines, agreed with Mapa, but said he was particularly worried on the lack of emphasis on the 2022 budget in Duterte’s SONA.

“In the absence of additional fiscal stimulus, next year's budget is very critical to further economic recovery. I just hope that the 2022 national budget will be passed on time,” Asuncion said in a text message.

To be fair, Duterte indeed called on Congress to pass some proposed reforms that, businesses themselves, support, including a bill that would open up the economy to more foreign investments and an E-Governance Act. But Asuncion said dealing with the pandemic should be the priority at this point.

“The immediate need to deal with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to be same-same without the call for additional sufficient fiscal stimulus in the short-term,” he said.

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