FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 27, 2021 - 12:00am

Sometimes we forget that we are in the midst of a crushing public health emergency. Among the precious weapons our people have at a time like this is governance. Take away governance and we fight the virus naked.

The anti-government zealots might not like it, but everything that happens in the public spaces needs to be governed. Everything one does in the public space is subject to rules. The rules must be effectively enforced or the social order disintegrates.

When the phenomenon of “community pantries” became all the rage the past two weeks, there were those who opportunistically tried to paint it as an indictment of government. All efforts by responsible local governments to regulate the activity were denounced as “harassment.”

Partisans were quick to insert their partisan narrative into something that was happening spontaneously. They tried to convince the good souls organizing community pantries to defy government.

So-called human rights advocates even went to the community pantries to convince organizers they do not need a permit to do what they do. That is disinformation. If one needs a permit to sell vegetables on the sidewalk, then one needs a permit of some sort to set up “community pantries” on the streets where people line up for blocks.

When permits are required for people who want to demonstrate, it is not to suppress free speech but to ensure the activity does not infringe on the rights of others – the regularity of traffic flow for instance.

The need for permits is even more important in the midst of this pandemic. Anything that could lead to violations of minimum health protocols must be tightly policed.

One doctor, a specialist in disaster medicine, tried to warn that the community pantries could become super spreader events and was thoroughly vilified in social media by the arrogant and self-righteous. The mindless zealots ruled the day.

Then disaster struck. A man died as people mobbed a venue where actress Angel Locsin was giving away groceries as her way of celebrating her birthday.

We all love Angel for her generosity during calamities. But what she organized was not really a community pantry. It was philanthropy. She was doling out from her largesse much like Bong Go seems to be doing every day.

There was nothing wrong with her exercise of philanthropy. There was everything wrong with her failure to coordinate with the local government in staging this event. The statement of the Quezon City government indicated this much.

Not coordinating with the authorities is consistent with the actress’ “woke” political disposition.  It is easy to imagine her dismissing the requirement for a permit as a form of “harassment.” But the crushing crowd that turned up to benefit from her philanthropy very likely caused the virus to spread.

Now the city government is asking the people who turned up for Locsin’s event to avail of free testing. The mayor is asking the actress to encourage her fans to submit to testing.

The tragedy is not without its silver lining. The death of a poor man, even as he did have preexisting conditions, encouraged the reassertion of governance. All the Metro Manila mayors rediscovered the courage to assert that organizers of “community pantries” coordinate with local authorities. This is how it should be.

Before this, the mayors tended to abdicate on their responsibility to insist the public spaces be governed. The self-righteous arrogance of those who thought they were beyond governance simply because they were doing good effectively commandeered the public discourse. The local executives feared being crucified in social media.

The reason we have “community quarantines” is precisely to enable more assertive regulation of the public spaces. In this pandemic, the crowded streets are the avenues for infections. When people congregate, they tend to infect each other.

The return to ECQ status last month appears to have worked to break the momentum of a surge in infections. Street-level enforcement is the key to any success the “community quarantines” might achieve. Vigilance in local governance is indispensable.

All of us dislike the restrictions. They are inconvenient and economically costly. But it is not true, as the agitators say, that lockdowns represent a “militarized” approach to a public health crisis. All over the world, lockdowns are correctly appreciated as the only effective way to stop a surge.

If we undermine effective governance, we undermine our ability to properly deal with this pandemic. All the needless political chatter undermines governance.

Israel is now celebrated for having vaccinated nearly all its adults. Hospitalizations have dropped and zero deaths recorded. The success of Israel’s vaccination program is due to the foresight of its leaders. Early on, while Pfizer was still conducting its trials, Israeli leaders negotiated to purchase vaccines at double the price. The Israelis understood that getting the vaccines at twice the price is actually cheaper than underwriting hospitalization and accepting deaths.

That could never have happened here. While our officials were in the process of negotiating vaccine procurement, our senators were all over them, small-mindedly warning without evidence of overpricing and kickbacks.

While politicians were still hawing about “harassment” by local governments, the Maginhawa Community Pantry quietly moved to a more feasible venue. The stalls are now found at the barangay hall. This underscores the value of coordination between government and community initiatives. They are partners, not adversaries.

Of course, government cannot replicate the community pantries. Government is a vertical network. The pantries draw their strength from horizontal social networks of voluntarism and charity.

The vertical networks of governance have their own virtues.

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