FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - March 24, 2020 - 12:00am

Things could get worse. It might take a long time before we can go back to some semblance of normalcy. 

Ever the prosecutor he once was, President Rodrigo Duterte requested Congress to pass a law declaring the existence of a national emergency. Such a law will provide legal cover for a broad range of actions that the state may need to do to cope with the crisis.

Expectedly, the request was met with political intrigue – mainly from the “human rights” lawyers who have been pretty idle these days. The heroes of the day are the doctors who put their lives on the line abiding by their professional oath. Many of them have been infected treating infected patients. A few of them have died.

The 1987 Constitution, as we know, has been extremely jealous when it comes to the powers of the presidency. This was a reaction to the martial law experience. The legislation the President requests addresses the gray areas the Constitution did not provide for.

Without intending to, the Constitution makes it necessary to declare martial law in order for the executive to have the tools to deal with a severe national emergency. The proposed legislation cures that. It is therefore a means to make the declaration of martial law unnecessary. 

There is an excellent audiovisual originating from a Chinese news agency discussing the challenges governments all over the world face given the plague. It observes that governments everywhere need to forge a new “social contract” with their people to enable undertaking the drastic measures to deal with the pandemic.

One government failing in doing what it has to do will imperil all humanity. These are severe times. They require severe measures.

A few days ago, Donald Trump pulled an old law off the shelves. This law is the Defense Production Act. It arms the executive with broad “wartime” powers, including commandeering entire industries to deal with the challenges at hand. 

We do not have an equivalent law. The declaration the President asks Congress to pass will cure that deficiency. We need this.

Fortunately, given the extreme situation we face, we have a President the vast majority of our people trust. That makes it easier to begin forging a new social contract.

The prudes might complain about his language and the squeamish ones might complain about his tendency to meander and stray when delivering speeches – including vital addresses to the nation. But nearly all of us are impressed by his love for our people and his clear grasp of his duties as leader of the land. 

Imagine if this pandemic found us with a weak leader or one with only a narrow base of public support. We will be in even greater trouble. 

When President Duterte ordered the entire National Capital Region put under “community quarantine,” there was little debate. When he escalated that to include the entire island of Luzon, there was little opposition. The need to do this was clear.

When some local executives tried to be creative with the quarantine orders, the President clamped down on them. Now everyone is in line.

The eternally useless leftist groups tried questioning the “fascist” methods the quarantine involved. It was as if they wanted nurses to man the checkpoints and, by extension, soldiers manning the emergency wards. By their sheer silliness, they only drew disdain.

Aging communist leader Jose Ma. Sison seized on Duterte’s order for a unilateral ceasefire to opportunistically press for negotiations even as all of government is preoccupied with fighting the virus. He has been correctly ignored. There are more pressing things to think about.

We are now into the second week of the “community quarantine.” Our people are adjusting to the harshness of things and demonstrating sterling solidarity. They trust our leaders.

There were hitches to be sure. The dogmatic imposition of the border checks nearly caused widespread food shortages. That has been corrected.

In the early days, the politically influential demanded testing, using scarce COVID-19 test kits. The public uproar for this flagrant exercise of political entitlement led the DOH to strictly impose its protocols. 

The large corporations and ordinary citizens have turned out marvelously to contribute generously to support our frontliners and reinforce our flagging health system. Everyone now understands we need a whole-of-society approach to meet this pandemic head-on. 

The day workers are hit hard by the quarantine. Government should speed up a fiscal package that will help us remunerate those now denied livelihood. 

When the pandemic hit, Denmark told its private companies government would pay 75 percent of their employees’ wages to prevent mass layoffs. This is an expensive proposition, amounting to as much as 13% of the national economy. But an economic collapse will collapse the health system and probably collapse the social order as well. Considering that, it is a cheap program to implement.

In the US, congressional leaders are now considering a $2 trillion package to revive the epidemic-hit economy. Right now, analysts are estimating the US economy will contract by as much as 24% because of the epidemic. A $2 trillion package is cheap.

In our case, the situation is dire. Out frontlines are thinning, with hundreds of doctors and nurses now infected themselves. We need to dramatically reinforce the health system, possibly by pressing medical and nursing students to the front. We must reward them commensurately. 

After the declaration of a state of emergency, our economic team must now present a large enough fiscal package to save the social order.

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