Tinderbox
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 4, 2020 - 12:00am

Sitio San Roque, where some sort of riot broke out last Wednesday, is an outlier in many ways.

Geographically, it is separated from the main Barangay Bagong Pagasa by two large commercial complexes: the Trinoma-Vertis complex and the SM North Edsa complex. 

It is also demographically distinct. 

Bagong Pagasa was settled during the fifties when the national government began decongesting Manila by opening up housing projects in Quezon City. White-collar workers occupying small lots or condominium units populate this barangay.

Sitio San Roque is a densely populated community composed entirely by informal settlers sitting on NHA land. Urban legend has it that the leader of the syndicate collecting “rent” from the informal settlers lives in one of the upper crust subdivisions elsewhere in the city. 

From the late eighties, when Ayala Land began clearing settlers to make way for its commercial development, the community was constantly geared to fight demolition of their shanties. Some months ago, when another wave of demotions happened to clear land for the construction of a sprawling hotel-casino complex, a group of protesting Sitio San Roque residents attempted to block traffic along Edsa.

Many years ago, a Philippine Science High School student (a math prodigy) walked over to the ATMs at SM North Edsa to withdraw P2,000. He was robbed and stabbed dead by scoundrels who fled into the innards of Sitio San Roque. 

Over the years, as the settlers of Sitio San Roque tried to fight back against demolition attempts, they found allies in the leftist groups. The leftist groups, in turn, found a reliable bailiwick that supplied manpower for their street protests.

In a word, Sitio San Roque is a world unto itself – demographically, culturally and ideologically. No one knows exactly how many inhabited this packed community. It was easy for Barangay Bagong Pag-asa to neglect them or, at least, to serve them last.

While Sitio San Roque is distinct from the rest of Barangay Bagong Pag-asa, it is similar to many other urban poor settlements all over the metropolitan area. In these settlements, people are tightly packed and vulnerable to a rampaging virus. They are also easy to overlook when the time comes to deliver amelioration through the spotty citizen registration system we have.

After that minor ruckus, assistance flowed to Sitio San Roque. The barangay leadership rushed food bags in. Corporate donors quickly delivered relief. Individual families contributed to the effort. The community, imaginably, now swims in bags of rice and groceries.  

This is good. Hopefully, the overflow of attention does not become some sort of perverse incentive for other urban poor communities to spark riots in their localities as a means for grabbing attention.

Surveillance

Understandably, the authorities are extremely sensitive to the possibility violence may break out during this moment of great difficulty.

President Rodrigo Duterte went on television to deliver a warning against any group considering violence in this very sensitive period. In his habitual way, he went into a needless rant and seemed to be ordering law enforcers to shoot troublemakers. His warning reverberated in the international media.

When his words are examined closely, however, Duterte the lawyer was merely reiterating standard operating procedure. Lawmen anywhere are allowed to shoot if their lives are under threat. His verbose delivery made it sound unreasonably threatening.

There is reason for the guardians of the public order to be alarmed.

This public health emergency lays bare the many weaknesses in our system of governance. We have not adopted electronic governance quickly enough. Our cumbersome bureaucracy is not prepared to meet this overwhelming challenge. Our political class is woefully antiquated.

For 25 years, leftist groups and human rights activists blocked the adoption of a national ID system. If we have developed this system during the nineties, we could imaginably download cash assistance to our poorest citizens electronically. Now we rely on the DSWD to quickly deliver the billions in assistance. Even with minimal documentation, it could take them weeks to accomplish this task.

Compare this with what Wuhan, which is the first 5G city in the world, had to fight the epidemic. Wuhan’s citizens all had QR codes in their mobile devices. Those codes allowed efficient delivery of assistance and became the primary instrument for regulating the movement of people. It does sound a little Orwellian, but it works efficiently in an emergency.

Last year, when I visited China, the sophisticated system of surveillance amazed me. Wherever I went in this large country, my biometrics, taken at the port of entry, surfaced at all electronic checkpoints. That included AI-assisted facial recognition technology.  

That sophisticated (and fearsome) surveillance infrastructure helped in fighting the epidemic and supporting the needy during the emergency. It provided the big data epidemiologists everywhere else could only dream off: real time contact tracing, travel histories and compliance with restrictions on movement.

President Duterte appointed former general Carlito Galvez to be chief enforcer of government’s comprehensive effort to fight this epidemic. He is said to be among the best operations and logistics minds in the country. We hope his talents somehow offset some of the weaknesses of our bureaucracy. 

Given the urgencies of the situation, we need to rapidly bring up the nimbleness of our bureaucracy to 21st century standards. Over the next few weeks, we will have to fully optimize the scarce resources we have on hand to beat back an insidious virus. 

The last thing we need at this moment is the useless political chatter we had too much of the first two weeks of the quarantine.

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