Reopening the economy (again)

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

The struggle is real. As Metro Manila and nearby cities eased into a different kind of general community quarantine on Thursday, one would think that small businesses, restaurants included, would scramble to reopen and eager customers would come running back to their favorite food haunts.

But not anymore, at least for some small business establishments.

Thursday last week for instance, on the first day of the new quarantine measures, the usually bustling dragon-shaped business district of Binondo – home to Filipino-Chinese businessmen and the rest of the trading community – saw very thin crowds. Some of the age-old food haunts were still closed, while some which decided to reopen were still nearly empty except for one or two tables, I’m told.

Some restaurant owners decided not to reopen because they weren’t sure anyway until when they could operate, as what they’ve been experiencing the past few months because of the IATF’s perennially changing announcements.

Other business owners who found the changing rules too costly have decided to throw in the towel and have closed their shops permanently.

In Malate, prior to the September 16 reopening, a pub owner had been perennially messaging customers to support his employees by ordering take-out bar chow and other items on their menu.

The owner had been using whatever savings he has left to keep his business and employees afloat. Note that if they don’t operate, they are unable to pay their rent, which has only been put on hold in their case and not necessarily waived.

Salons, barbershops, spas and their employees are in the same boat as restaurant owners, also struggling to survive as well.

I know of a gym owner who invested millions to put up a health and fitness business. Unfortunately, COVID-19 struck and this sector was among those locked down by the government until now, which to a business owner’s point of view is practically forever.

Micro and small businesses

The struggle, indeed, is real and I’m not sure the Duterte administration realizes just how much pain micro and small businesses are in now.

Many of them are now buried in debt because of loans they had to take to keep their businesses alive.

The pain points come from the uncertainties that stem from the IATF’s decision-making process. For business owners who need to plan, budget, and prepare, being told to close for who-knows-when is a killer.

I also can’t wrap my head around the IATF’s priorities. Why did it disallow outdoor exercises when we are in a global health crisis? Isn’t it counterintuitive to prevent people from staying healthy and fit to boost the immune system? Outdoor exercises are usually a solitary experience – running, brisk walking, and even outdoor yoga.

It also closed health and fitness centers when people should really be exercising to stay healthy. What it should have done was to limit the capacity, just like in the malls.

I am well aware that it’s a perennial struggle for our authorities to strike a balance between keeping the COVID-19 case count manageable and reopening the economy.

We all know the tycoons and the big businesses have constantly been lobbying the government to reopen the economy, while the health experts, on the other hand, want to keep Metro Manila and nearby cities in lockdown.

Both sides have valid points, but there must be a better middle ground between the two. I’ve always believed that localized lockdowns can work better with proper contact-tracing and if the government accelerates the vaccine roll-out as fast as it can.

Business bubbles

I chanced upon parts of a television interview on ABS-CBN with House Deputy Minority Leader Stella Quimbo, who makes a very good case about reopening the economy while still doing quarantine measures.

She said narrowing the lockdowns all the way down to the affected household itself makes more sense than closing an entire community or city. I didn’t get her exact quote, but it was something to that effect, and I believe that makes so much sense because I’ve seen it work in our barangay.

The economist lawmaker also said that there is wisdom in allowing businesses to reopen because they can serve as bubbles of sorts where people practice health protocols and can have access to regular testing. If I may add, it also makes contact tracing easier because they all belong to one company or one business environment.

Private sector

This is how the government can really make the private sector an important partner in helping win the fight against COVID-19.

As Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III said, he is pushing for the further reopening of the economy, but on the condition that bigger businesses would provide weekly testing and tracing, and move toward a rational approach to managing the containment of the virus.

Businesses, in effect, can do what the government has been unable to do.

I fervently hope that the IATF moves to a more effective quarantine measure that is simpler instead of complicated; more efficient, instead of restrictive; science-based instead of knee-jerk reactions, and more importantly, effective.

For now, it feels like it’s really doing its best, as Harry Roque wants us to believe, but when you look around and you see all those closed shops and empty restaurants, and once-employed Filipinos begging for alms on the road, it certainly doesn’t feel like that.



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

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