A just recovery: Building back better in the Philippines after COVID-19
As with anything, the end could go at least two ways. There is the first option: of things going back to normal, the way we’ve always known before the world as we knew it came to a screeching halt. Normal was the story of our hospitals being perpetually understaffed with workers consistently overloaded even on our best days. It’s the story about a supposedly pro-people leader deeming ending contractualization impossible to “preserve a balance” in favor of business interests. It’s the repetitive tale of officials patting each other on the back for reported economic growth while calls for a living wage of P750 stood ignored. It is clear that our normal has always been unsustainable as it only worked for the interests of the few. It failed us merely days into a state-imposed COVID-19 quarantine and revealed the pitfalls of our broken system. Our version of normal has not only overburdened our health sector to the point of near collapse, but revealed that our narrative of resilience needed to be more than a story we tell ourselves to feel better in the aftermath of disasters. The second option is an outright rejection of all of the above. Over 300 organizations have called for a just recovery after the COVID-19 outbreak. This is a call globally for countries to ensure that public health is put first, economic relief is provided directly to people, help is extended to workers and communities and not corporate executives, resilience is created for future crises and solidarity and community is built across borders, disempowering authoritarians. A just recovery means taking responsibility for the painstaking task that is building back a better and stronger world, one that does not crumble at the onset of disruptions like that of the COVID-19 outbreak’s scale. This time, we’ll pick up the tools and create it ourselves. For the Philippines, this means genuine bayanihan: community care, solidarity and sustainable progress that leaves no one behind. Here are visions grounded on that. Enacting fair labor laws and upholding workers’ rights Pre-existing widespread contractualization and discrimination against low-income, precarious, and informal workers aggravate the country’s situation amid a public health emergency. Three out of five employed persons in Luzon, or 14.4 million workers, are non-regular, and informal earners according to research group IBON. Due to the Luzon-wide lockdown, they face not only lost wages and earnings, but also uncertain terms of direct financial assistance because of their employment status. Expedient government support is needed especially to those depending on daily wage for subsistence. The present situation of these workers reflects the critical role of job security, living wages, and sustained income, in building and increasing their capacity to endure and cooperate in dealing with a public health crisis. As we work to end COVID-19, we must also end the conditions that breed the virus of inequality in labor: contractualization, unfair labor practices, hazardous work conditions, and union repression. In a country rich with natural resources, it is unacceptable for Filipino workers to remain poor. The government has the obligation to uphold the dignity of workers and the people. Security of tenure and protection of workers’ rights must be the top priority. Fully supporting Philippine industries, enterprises and agrarian development, along with setting the national minimum wage, bolsters not only local production and domestic job creation, but also, our overall capacity to further propel our national economy upwards. Pushing for universal health care, proactive public health, and safe conditions for health workers A few days ago, the government decided that PhilHealth will shoulder the cost of hospital treatment of all COVID-19-infected Filipino patients. The poor and the working class should never have to worry about medical treatment and hospital expenses at this crucial time. This move reveals that obtaining genuinely universal healthcare access by lowering or eliminating every Filipino’s out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare, especially hospitalizations and treatments due to any kinds of diseases, injuries, or medical conditions, is not a far possibility. As of today, our government has increased its capacity to test for COVID-19 by activating five more sub-national laboratories, alongside the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine. Hopefully, we will have more in order to carry out mass testing to slow down the outbreak. However, these measures are reactive. The best way to protect the health of the public is through proactive measures that prepare us for potential outbreaks long before the need arises. One way to do this is to expand the Philippine Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response (PIDSR) so that we can identify emerging infectious diseases before they can even spread. Another way is to ensure that research and development, immunization drives and disease monitoring shouldn’t take a backseat.
Sarah Elago serves as the representative of Kabataan, a youth sectoral party-list, in the 17th and 18th Congress. Beatrice Tulagan is a writer and a climate activist, serving as the East Asia Field Organizer for 350.org. Rafael Navarro is a registered chemist and a science research specialist doing molecular microbiology in the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine - Department of Health. Pecier Decierdo is a science communicator for The Mind Museum. The authors' views are their own and do not represent the views of their respective organizations.