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FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 22, 2021 - 12:00am

At last count, there are more than 300 community pantries in operation, 70 of them in Quezon City alone. This is a marvelous phenomenon.

The rapid replication of this experiment makes it the topic of the day. As such, it courts controversy. One wonders, can this experiment survive the toxic air of our politics?

The more closely I observe this, the more I am convinced the power of this experiment lies in its purity of purpose. The moment this experiment is weaponized for politics-as-usual, it dies.

The community pantry is a mechanism of inclusiveness, relying on mutual aid and self-help. Patreng Non, initiator of the Maginhawa Community Pantry, insists that no judgments be made about who gives and who gets. Nothing filters donors and beneficiaries. There is no “othering,” therefore no “us” versus “them.”

The novel experiment caught the normal authorities off-guard.

Barangay officials, charged with policing vending along the sidewalks and enforcing health protocols, were unsurprisingly alarmed. Goods were changing hands along the sidewalk and crowds were massing, often neglecting minimum health protocols. Bureaucratic impulse dictates that anything that happens in public spaces must require a permit.

Police officers came and asked for identification. They would be negligent if they did not do so. Should something go awry, they need to know who to contact.

In our poisoned political atmosphere, it is easy to redefine bureaucratic impulse as “harassment.” When that happens, senators reflexively raise a howl and self-proclaimed human rights advocates convene press conferences. They, too, are creatures of habit.

Opposition politicians, themselves creatures of habit, tried to portray the community pantry initiative as an indictment of the administration. The harder they try doing so, the more tone-deaf they reveal themselves to be. Not everything that happens (or does not happen) requires government mediation.

The bureaucrats charged with “ending the local communist insurgency” represent the other side of this coin of tone-deafness. They are charged with finding a communist conspiracy beneath anything that happens in the streets. On the faux reasoning that anything that sounds like a duck must be a duck, they imputed something red in what was happening.

But the leftists were themselves caught flatfooted by the community pantry initiative. In their daily practice, these leftists are trained to mobilize grievances against government with the end goal being the seizure of state power. It is beyond the imagination of these incurably statist activists to imagine genuine grassroots initiatives involving the masses helping themselves.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” might sound Marxist. It is actually anarcho-syndicalist, originating from the utopian socialist movements that proliferated long before Marx that imagined societies without states. The communist movement here, as one foreign scholar who comprehensively studied it concludes, is Leninist but not Marxist. It seeks to capture the state, not abolish it.

No one was really prepared to conceptually deal with this rapidly replicating community experiment. It is an outburst of goodwill that has become so alien to our usual politics where politicians try to be more cynical than the trolls.

Devolved

This pandemic caused so many roles to be pushed down to local governments – whether or not they were prepared to play them or endowed to do so well.

Local governments now play frontline roles is battling the pandemic. They are charged with distributing relief goods, establishing isolation facilities and executing the vaccination program. They have taken the initiative to establish digital contact-tracing networks, supervise the observance of minimum health protocols and enforce curfews and alcohol bans.

The barangay, our smallest political unit, has become indispensable in executing community quarantine protocols. They seal neighborhoods when necessary and ensure crowds do not form in the streets.

The new roles assigned to local government units, often without the corresponding resources to carry them out, has become a severe test of leadership. Well-led localities stand out by the infection rates that happen in them.

Among the local governments that stand out in the heavily infested National Capital Region is the City of Taguig. The city has among the lowest infection rates in the region as well as the most efficient social protection programs.

When the pandemic hit us last year, Taguig was among the first cities to establish its own testing facility. It was among the first cities to execute social protection programs for vulnerable neighborhoods.

Chief implementer of anti-COVID-19 policies Sec. Carlito Galvez did describe Taguig as “a model city in terms of its effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” This is not an isolated assessment. Last January, the Department of Health awarded Mayor Lino Cayetano with the COVID-19 Response Service Award for his “exemplary leadership and exceptional commitment in the implementation of COVID-19 response and ensuring health services in the community.

According to the latest data, Taguig has less than 20 active cases per 100,000 people. That is an incredible number, comparing well with a well-run city-state like Singapore. Credit goes to the tremendous coordination between a well-organized local government and a disciplined local population.

The efficiently run local government in Taguig did not happen overnight. It is the cumulative outcome of a series of local executives all carrying the surname Cayetano.

The people of Taguig have every reason to be satisfied with the quality of leadership provided them by the Cayetanos. That quality of leadership is a more important consideration than the contrived concern over “political dynasties.”

Mature democracies, after all, reward the quality of leadership provided over some abstract consideration for alternating those put in power. In Taguig, continuity had its rewards.

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