"Nobody was prepared for a crisis of this magnitude."
The final State of the Nation Address of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte marks the beginning of the end of his six-year presidential term.
There is no question that the nation finds itself starkly far off from the confidence and optimism that pervaded the Philippines when Duterte was elected president six years ago.
To be fair, however, this pandemic is not of his making, nor is this crisis limited to our country. For more than a year, the whole world has been grappling with this coronavirus infection, putting almost the entire planet at a standstill.
As the country listens to his final report to the nation, it would be gravely unfair, not only to the President but to his entire team, to simply define his term of office based on what has happened in the last two years.
Because honestly, not all is lost.
There are at least three major gains that will define the Duterte administration: First, stronger bias for poverty reduction and economic inclusion; second, sustained efforts for security, peace and order; third, significant investments in infrastructure development.
Unlike his predecessors, President Duterte has not tarried in approving and implementing key pieces of social legislation—at times even against the advice of his own economic managers—such as universal health care and free tertiary education.
In fact, he unhesitatingly signed at least three key legislative measures geared towards increased social inclusion—the Magna Carta of the Poor which was once vetoed by former President Benigno Aquino III, the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys) Act, which mandates the issuance of national IDs for every Filipino, and the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program Act, the national poverty reduction strategy and human capital investment program that provides conditional cash transfer to poor households for a maximum period of seven years to ensure access to health, nutrition and education.
The cost of these interventions may be staggering, but for sure, these will significantly impact the quality of life for many Filipino families and lift many of them from absolute poverty.
President Duterte also took the decisive step of undertaking the long-overdue reform of the country’s income tax structure with the passage of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Act, exempting from hefty income taxes those earning no more than P250,000 a year, the bulk of low income earners.
While its full effects are yet to be realized, not only did he set up the 8888 hotline for citizen complaints. President Duterte also signed the Ease of Doing Business Act, thereby curbing the incidence of red tape in the bureaucracy and ordering faster and more efficient government service operations.
In terms of ensuring peace and order, the Duterte administration made good on its campaign promise of reducing the supply, demand, and harmful effects of illegal drugs. There is no doubt that his efforts have effectively curtained illegal drug trade in the country, dismantling countless drug dens and clandestine laboratories in the country.
The President has also given priority to improving the plight not only of those in the armed forces, but also those in the police, fire protection and even jail management service by approving a significant salary increase for our uniformed personnel.
As the first Philippine president from Mindanao, President Duterte’s lasting contribution towards ending years of strife and ushering peace in the country’s southern island is his strong support to the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
With his Build, Build, Build program, President Duterte has laid out an ambitious and unprecedented infrastructure development program, which aims to improve the country’s highways, bridges, mass transport system, airports, and seaports. The completion of delayed infrastructure projects such as the Skyway Stage 3 and the NLEX-SLEX connector projects. Although these have been in the pipeline even before the Aquino presidency, they were only realized during the Duterte administration.
Much has been achieved, but so much more has yet to be realized.
Most of the mega-infrastructure projects mentioned at the beginning of his term have been effectively shelved or placed on hold. It did not also help that due to the coronavirus pandemic, government spending had to shift to our COVID-19 efforts, in effect reducing significantly the time and resources needed to carry out many of these projects.
The coronavirus pandemic however caught the world by surprise, and its toll on human life and the economy cannot be ignored. It has caused the worst economic crisis in history and necessitated the largest economic recovery plan since the Second World War.
Plainly speaking, the country and our government were not prepared for a crisis of this magnitude, notwithstanding that at the beginning even the scientific community knew little of the disease and its effects.
That explains why many governments in the world were mainly on a wait-and-see mode, trying to grasp every piece of information as it came. None of the resources required, at least in the numbers needed, were available before the pandemic, and the increasing squabble for whatever limited supply there be—from PPE equipment to vaccines—had made the situation even worse.
From a global health emergency, before we know it, the pandemic has grown into a full-blown economic crisis.
Today, President Duterte will deliver his annual speech for both houses of Congress. The fact that he will speak to a half-filled hall and the majority of his audience attending online is a clear indication of the present crisis.
Herd immunity and a lasting cure to this pandemic remains elusive.
The economy continues to deal with the worst inflation in the country’s history. So will unemployment continue to rise, and the sad economic consequences that come with it.
But with every crisis comes an opportunity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought greater attention to our limited healthcare capability. Thanks to the universal healthcare program, strides to increase our healthcare capacity are in place.
The economic recovery legislation provided in the two installments of the Bayanihan Recover as One Act has significantly alleviated the socio-economic distress caused by the pandemic through cash transfers and fiscal stimulus programs. But with the income tax reform, a significant surplus in the monthly income of low wage earners have also helped them deal with this crisis.
Many would say the economy remains uncertain, and the future looks bleak. It does not take an expert to establish that our country is desperately in need of an economic rebound.
But neither does it cancel the gains made by the Duterte administration in its first four years. One cannot deny the fact that we could have been in worse shape. Thanks to the sound social and economic policy interventions previously made, our country is definitely in a better position to deal with this crisis and emerge from it even better and stronger.
It may be the beginning of the end, but we are certainly up for a hopeful conclusion.