FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

This year will be better. That was the prevalent thought as we cheered the transition from a difficult year to an uncertain one.

The fact is, we don’t really know. Yet 2020 was such a difficult year we could not imagine anything worse.

When infections began spreading ten months ago, we found ourselves in entirely unfamiliar circumstances. We did not have reliable therapies for the afflicted. A vaccine was eons away. We were not sure if this pandemic would last a few weeks, a number of months or maybe years.

Now we have better therapies. Vaccines are available, although the mutating virus could challenge that. We are sure we will have to deal with this pandemic for years to come. We will bear the scars from this experience for the rest of our lives.

We begin the year without vaccine doses available – except for bootleg supplies illegally administered to the presidential security guards. When we do get authorized vaccines, it will take us years to administer them.

Now we know: the vaccines are not as important as the vaccinations. We could get supplies by the end of January, but might not have the means to administer them.

Last October, when the availability of efficacious vaccines appeared imminent, the Trump administration boasted a hundred million doses would be in people’s arms by the end of December. That estimate was downgraded to 40 million in November and then 20 million by the start of December. At the end of 2020, only a bit over 2 million vaccinations were done.

This is surely not enough to stop the horrifying surge in infections and death in the US. A billion doses of vaccines kept in storage are useless. But getting the vaccinations done has proven to be a tough logistics challenge.

With our vastly inferior health system, we cannot anticipate doing any better. The IATF’s estimate of a 5-year timetable for administering the vaccines does seem to be the best we can do.

Over the next few weeks, we will be closely observing how bad the expected post-holiday surge in infections will be. Things could get really bad if the spike is higher than expected, driven by the entry of more transmissible variants of the virus.

Right now, we just wait with bated breath.

We do know that through the length of January the NCR and several other urban centers will be kept in general community quarantine. A ban on travelers from countries where the new variant of the virus has been recorded has been imposed indefinitely. This means our economic recovery will continue to be hampered by mitigation measures.

Bouncing back from the unspeakably deep recession is going to take time. Two things indicate that our enterprises are not ready to bounce back: imports of capital goods remain down and banks are reporting meager borrowing for capacity expansion.

The stronger peso means that OFW remittances will be less able to spur domestic consumption demand. We will have to rely greatly on public spending to spur domestic economic activity. That public spending, we need to be reminded, will be funded from debt.

But as we saw in previous crises, we scramble when we need to. Right now, we need to scramble to get our economy going again.

In welcoming a new year, we had to remember the people we lost, whether to COVID-19 or to other causes. There seems to be too many of them.

We remember with gratitude those who worked selflessly the past few months fighting the pandemic. They include those who manned our weak health care system and prevented it from collapsing under the weight of a severe medical emergency.

We must also thank those who remained at their posts, doing what needed to be done to keep our institutions functioning and our communities safe. Because of them, the nation held together through ten difficult months. Nearly all our citizens abided by the prescribed protocols and a handful of political opportunists were kept at bay. We are strong because of that.

We will pull through this crisis. Perhaps not as quickly or easily as the nations better organized and better equipped than we are. But we did well enough to impress those who thought an excess of politics sapped our capacity to respond and our ability to see the future clearly.

It is too early to tell if 2021 will be a better year than the last one. There are too many wild cards. The mutating virus is one. The possibility of second-generation economic crisis, akin to the subprime financial meltdown of 2008, lurks. All the pressures bearing down on the world’s societies from both the health crisis and the related economic crises could precipitate unexpected lines of political fissures. The civil war breaking out in Ethiopia is an example.

We will have to work as hard as we did last year, exercise as much vigilance, to bring about a new normal acceptably functional and tolerably peaceful. Climbing out of this pandemic will be a long grind. It will challenge our sense of common destiny and our commitment to liveable communities.

The key word 2020 leaves us is neither “pandemic” nor “lockdown.” It should be “cooperation.” This is the value that got us through unbelievably difficult times. It is the value that will guide us to the other side.

Of course, 2021 will be better. We have learned so much from the year just passed about helping each other and working with each other. All we have learned made us better.

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