Instead of the usual keys and box containing small change from the previous trip or pasada, Daniel donned his face mask, grabbed a cardboard sign, and gripped an empty plastic container. His route and destination have changed since the national government imposed a community-wide lockdown halting public transportation and requiring students and office workers to work from home. Suddenly robbed of his only source of income to feed his starving family, Daniel had to stand at the side of the road and beg for alms to each moving private vehicles. Each passing day of the lockdown means little to no money for Daniel to pay rent. Evicted from their lodging, his jeepney serves as their current shelter.
Daniel is just one of the many Filipinos heavily affected by the government-imposed lockdown in an effort to contain the infectious coronavirus. It was on March 16, 2020 that a community quarantine, which was expected to end after two weeks, was imposed and prolonged to a yearlong lockdown. The first strategy of the Duterte administration under the COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force is to keep Filipinos from coming out of their homes and provide a guideline for travel, essential goods, business continuity, and health management. A month into the lockdown, the unemployment rate is at a record high of 7.2 million or 17.6%, almost 238% higher than the recorded rate of the previous year. The year 2020 also has the highest annual unemployment rate since April 2005.
The social media is rife with criticisms and calls for the resignation of the Department of Health Minister, Francisco Duque III, and President Rodrigo Duterte, due to lack of mass testing and failure to address the health-related problems such as the alarming growth of positive cases and hospital overcapacities, among others. In the 2021 State of the Southeast Asia Survey Report, the Philippines was ranked the lowest in terms of the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A study conducted by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) shows that 85% of the households in the Philippines have experienced financial difficulty during the pandemic.
“Wala na tayong pera” (We have no money) is the usual rhetoric you hear whenever Duterte speaks to the press and media in response to the public clamor for aid and relief. His late-night addresses would consist of baseless suggestions to combat COVID-19 or to validate police harassment on dissidents during lockdowns. One year after the first imposition of lockdown, Filipinos are still left to their own devices with no mass testing and proper contact tracing conducted at a larger scale. Economic advisers encouraged the opening of malls, businesses, and public transportation amid rising cases. Loosening the previous strict protocols has resulted in a record high of 190,245 COVID-19 cases which forced another stringent lockdown in Greater Manila.
The usual rhetoric of Duterte on the lack of government funds has only increased the indignation of the Filipinos as they brought their grievances on social media. Some are demanding answers of how the government spent P10.4 trillion worth of debt when the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) worth P205 billion hardly helped the cash-strapped families for the following months of lockdown.
However, it is misleading to think that the government has borrowed a huge amount of money in just a year after the COVID-19 outbreak. The P10.4 trillion debt, as of February 2021, is the outstanding borrowings of the Philippine government from the previous administrations, not just the Duterte Administration. What can be observed is the growth of the country’s accumulated debt by 33.58% from the 2019 annual debt.
The government is indeed pressed for money as it operates on a budget deficit. To fund the sudden influx of public spending on the health sector, the administration turns to domestic and international loans. ADB and World Bank have loaned a total of $1.71 billion and $200 million, respectively, for COVID-19 response. As of July 2020, a sum of P340 billion was raised from both domestic and external debt. The government will secure a separate loan of $1.2 billion from the World Bank, ADB, and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) for vaccine procurement. A total of P82.5 billion was allotted for the COVID-19 response covering vaccination programs and other related expenses.
The loans may be granted under the guise of COVID-19 related aid, however, the government has the final say on its use and allocation. Thus, several oppositions have called out Duterte’s COVID-19 fiscal plan and proposed an audit on the use of government funds. The request for probe heated as issues on vaccine procurement emerge.
Growing critical rhetoric in social media against the Duterte administration has also been stoked by the seemingly early spread of campaign paraphernalia for the candidacy of both Senator Bong Go, a close aid of the president, and Davao Mayor Sarah Duterte, daughter of the incumbent president.
Rumors of funds for COVID-19 response being withheld and released during the campaign period for 2022 national and local elections are spreading like wildfire in social media. The frustration of Filipinos growing into election-related conspiracy is unavoidable considering the ongoing mismanagement of the pandemic. Filipinos are no stranger to electoral campaign practices of briberies and vote-buying.
A study conducted by the Institute of Philippine Culture (IPC) of the Ateneo de Manila University from 2004 shows that the perception of Filipinos towards election includes the intentional release of public funds for the improvement of the candidate’s image. Corrales and Penfold (2014) observed the same behavior of public spending before and during electoral campaign periods in Latin America to increase reelection chances for the incumbents (Corrales and Penfold 2014).
Whether or not Duterte plans to use the COVID-19 funds and programs to secure reelection or to establish support for his associates would depend on his subsequent moves leading up to the 2022 Philippine general election.
Photo: “54158-002: Implementing a Rapid Emergency Supplies Provision (RESP) Assistance to Design a Sustainable Solution for COVID-19 Impact Areas in the National Capital Region, Through a Public Private Collaboration” by Asian Development Bank is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0