Centrist Democracy Political Institute - Items filtered by date: April 2020
Thursday, 30 April 2020 08:58

Needed: A roadmap to reopening

It must be very hard for President Duterte to find himself having to make a decision on an issue where the slightest miscalculation could lead to catastrophic consequences, and with no one to blame. Like autocrats whose experience at ruling has mostly been carved in premodern settings, Mr. Duterte trusts too much in his own instincts. He has shown little patience for the kind of systematic thinking and rational decision-making that underpins modern statecraft.

In a rare admission of fallibility, he said in his latest public appearance that he has turned to prayer for some guidance on what to do. I suspect that, deep down, Mr. Duterte is terrorized by the thought of being remembered as the president who failed to protect his people from the ravages of a vicious disease.

Newly-reinstated presidential spokesperson Harry Roque earnestly opened the briefing with a summary of the decision, which extended the existing enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in the National Capital Region and much of Luzon to May 15, and modified it into a general community quarantine (GCQ) in areas that have posted significant declines in the number of new coronavirus infections.

That would have made for a concise and straightforward presentation. But the President could not control his need to say something after every report by a member of the Inter-Agency Task Force. He saw every pause as an opportunity to launch another rambling and repetitive monologue on a pet issue, sometimes to the point of losing his breath in the middle of unrestrained cursing and threats to declare his “own” brand of martial law. These interruptions are the main reason for the general incoherence of these briefings.

If he is supposed to be the representative of the expert community during this crisis, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III has been nothing but a pathetic presence. His fawning behavior before the President is without parallel. Nothing in what he says mirrors the independent viewpoint of science or of one with any functional expertise.

On a previous occasion, in what seemed like an after-the-fact nod to science, UP professor Mahar Lagmay was called to the podium to share the findings from the modelling studies that his team from the university had been conducting. This took place after the main briefing led by the President had ended.

I don’t quite understand how these things are arranged. But I’m sure Dr. Lagmay would have gladly yielded the microphone to an epidemiologist or a public health specialist, if there was one in the room. He is, after all, an earth scientist, and, in the mass media, he is better known as an expert on geological hazards.

Be that as it may, the projections of his group, like those of another research team from the UP scientific community, carried a caveat. These projections are premised on the presumed accuracy of the Department of Health’s daily reports of the number of confirmed infections and number of deaths from COVID-19.

Here, precisely, is where the crux of the problem lies. These numbers are highly dependent on many factors, not the least of which are: (1) the readiness of people to report their symptoms to the health authorities, and (2) the availability of the tests to those who require them. Since testing for the virus has been largely confined to symptomatic persons with a history of travel to infection hotspots or of contact with known cases, the likelihood that the actual number of infections is grossly understated cannot be ignored. If testing were made available to people with mild or moderate symptoms, or to those who have had contact but show no symptoms, the scale of the infection could be much worse than the current figures indicate.

The numbers for COVID-19 deaths, at first glance, may seem unproblematic. But that is assuming that a proper diagnosis of death from COVID-19 is made and is duly reported to the DOH in every instance, no matter where it happens. I understand that the DOH subjects these reports to a validation process. Where neither a test nor a clinical diagnosis nor an autopsy is performed, it would not be easy to arrive at a clear determination of the cause of death. This leaves plenty of room for error in the number of case fatalities ascribed to COVID-19.

Some say that, ideally, at least a third of the population should be tested in order to arrive at a confident measure of the extent of the outbreak. That would be about 35 million in our case—a figure that we cannot begin to contemplate given the government’s modest target of 8,000-10,000 tests per day.

Given the inherent complexity of gauging the real magnitude of the outbreak and the course it takes over a period, responsive governments have premised the loosening of quarantine measures on attaining certain targets other than the flattening of the curve that everyone talks about.

One such plan comes from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a neoconservative think-tank that has a strong interest in the eventual reopening of the US economy. Interestingly, the AEI regards the current insistence on physical distancing as the chief barrier to a renormalization of economic activity. To lift this barrier, it argues, it would be necessary to put in place a better public health surveillance system for early outbreak identification and containment, and adequate treatment facilities. Without a vaccine, there is simply no way of returning to the world we knew.

This is a very modest roadmap as it is. We expect nothing less from a government that is supposed to base its decisions on more than one person’s instincts.

Published in News
Thursday, 30 April 2020 08:40

Discordant note

For sure, nobody’s singing this song anytime soon in any karaoke bar even after the ECQ.

“Iisang Dagat” (One Sea), that ludicrous song “dedicated to those (who) contributed to the fight against COVID-19, with special thanks to the China Medical Expert Team,” according to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, may now have dislodged “My Way” as the ditty most likely to provoke a brawl anywhere it is sung.

The song, featured in a four-minute video, was written by Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian and performed by Chinese diplomat Xia Wenxin, Camarines Sur Vice Governor and early ’80s jukebox queen Imelda Papin, Filipino-Chinese singer Jhonvid Bangayan, and Chinese actor Yu Bin. By Monday, the video had racked up 146,000 “dislikes” on YouTube, and only 2,000 likes. Most of the 20,000 comments scored the video as “Chinese propaganda.”

What were these Chinese officials thinking? That Filipinos would get instant amnesia after hearing this siren song?

Just two days before the song’s release, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. disclosed that the country had filed two diplomatic protests against China. The first one was for a Chinese warship having pointed a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship on a sovereignty patrol mission near the Malampaya gas field in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) in February — an incident described by former Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio as “pure and simple bullying.”

The other protest was over China’s attempt to boost its disputed claims over the entire South China Sea by naming 80 maritime geographical features in the area and dividing the territory into two districts under the control of Sansha City, in effect “declaring parts of Philippine territory as part of Hainan province,” said Locsin in a tweet. Both incidents are “violations of international law and Philippine sovereignty,” he added.

Glaringly, Beijing had made its latest provocations while the rest of the world was distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic that had originated from Wuhan in central China.

Days after the song’s release, China was again in the local news, this time for the discovery that Chinese workers were running an illegal health facility in Parañaque exclusive for Chinese nationals, where unregistered medicines for COVID-19, HIV, dengue, and sexually transmitted diseases were found.

Before this, police had also raided an illegal Pogo operation inside a house in Parañaque despite the Luzon-wide quarantine that shut down nonessential businesses. Arrested were 44 Chinese and nine Filipino nationals who were managing the Pogo site; seized from them were pistols, cellular phones, computers, and cash. Even as a harsh lockdown has been imposed on millions of ordinary Filipinos, many Chinese workers in the country apparently feel fearless enough to continue to transgress Philippine laws.

“Iisang Dagat’s” discordant note and disconnect to reality notwithstanding, Malacañang was quick to dismiss the public’s revulsion at the transparent bid to paper over China’s problematic behavior toward the Philippines. The video is covered by freedom of speech, said presidential spokesperson Harry Roque. Of course—except that his invocation of that freedom on behalf of Chinese propaganda came on the same week that labor officials in Taiwan made an outrageous bid to deport a Filipino caregiver for her alleged “nasty and malevolent” comments against the Duterte administration’s response to the pandemic.

The song’s fervent avowals to friendship, solidarity, and furthering Filipino-Chinese relations, in any case, flies in the face of China’s brazen disregard and aggressive lockout of the country’s territorial rights over the WPS, despite the July 2016 international arbitral ruling that favored the Philippines’ position and rejected Beijing’s expansionist nine-dash line over the entire area. “Iisang dagat” (one sea) is itself an offensive claim; China is encroaching on waters that belong to the Philippines and other countries in the region. And even as the Chinese ambassador was penning treacly lyrics about how, translated to Filipino, “Hawak kamay tayo’y patungo sa maliwanag na kinabukasan, Ikaw at ako’y nasa iisang dagat, Ang iyong pagmamahal aking kasama, Ang iyong kamay ay hindi ko bibitawan,” his country’s ships were meanwhile harassing Filipino fishermen and the Philippine Navy, and Beijing has relentlessly militarized the region with artificial islands, outposts, harbors, airstrips, and communication facilities built on seized islands.

It may be time for the government to start singing a different tune when it comes to its “BFF”—best friends forever, which was how Roque unabashedly described China. Or it may well go down in history as the administration that, well, sold the country for a song.

Published in News

Part 2 — Economic recovery and the second wave

CENTRAL to a global economic recovery are two predicates: the taming of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) as a “sine qua non” and a seamless measured lifting of the quarantine to restart local economic activities. But the world cannot wait 18 months. Much is unknown about its virulence when quarantine is lifted. It could trigger another wave of contagion. Yet, the world must understand we may have to live with the contagion or its mutant form among us for the foreseeable future.

Government and private revenues are drying up dangerously. Unemployment has shot through the roof and food subsidies are finite. The advanced economies have built-in safety nets, while the impoverished countries, like the Philippines, have their masses coping. They eat when they find work. We need to comprehend, too, that Covid- 19 has ravaged a relatively small percentage of a country’s population, but hysteria, ignorance and panic have blown this out of proportion. It is not a zero-sum game between “saving lives to save the economy or saving the economy to save lives.” The trade-off between the need for jobs and avoidance of contagion to save the economy must be calibrated with precision toward the decision to reopen the economy. (Refer to Nick Perlas’ letter to President Duterte on the Philippine Daily Inquirer.)

Singapore — second wave
Take Singapore, with its reputation as the best governed prosperous city-state; it acted quickly and decisively. By instituting quarantines and employing massive testing, isolating the positives and tracing the infected, and of everyone flying into its Changi airport, the virus was contained. Covid-19 positives were enrolled into its excellent healthcare system, freeing them once they tested negative. Singapore learned its lessons well from the outbreak of the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic. What they did became the gold standard for the virus containment and mitigation. Then the second wave rolled in.

The spike in cases hit Singapore harder this time around. Several reasons could be attributed for this surge, but the overarching cause was that this First World country acted as a Third World country with respect to its foreign migrant workers. “Singapore’s vast migrant worker population, in particular those workers — most from South Asia — living in cramped dormitories, who appear to have been overlooked in the initial wave of testing. What is evident is that the conditions that workers live in made effective social distancing — or ‘home’ quarantine — next to impossible, making it easy for the virus to spread,” (James Griffiths, CNN, April 19, 2020.)

For the well-to-do Singaporeans, the initial reaction as explained by Dale Fisher, infection control chairman at the National University Hospital, was that, “In Singapore, we want life to go on as normal… We want businesses, churches, restaurants and schools to stay open. This is what success looks like. Everything goes forward with modifications as needed and you keep doing this until there’s a vaccine or a treatment.” Its relaxed attitude may have done Singapore in. Or maybe hubris did.

The US
America’s case is different. Unlike Singapore, it is a country gazillion times bigger, endowed with vast resources, but saddled with a complicated political system, presided over by a leader that pales in comparison to Lee Kwan Yew’s progeny, Lee Hsien Loong. United tates President Donald Trump mandated a phased-in reopening of the economy leaving final decision to state governors under a set of his own criteria. The next day he promptly subverted the same — calling his base to “liberate the states from lockdowns.” Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia are key targets needed to propel him to a second term in November. This is seducing fate for a possible second wave of contagion as the exigencies of politics he made supreme over people’s lives.

PH experience
In our country, meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte, or the Deegong, has been chillingly deliberate in explaining to the citizens that the P270-billion outlay is only enough for two months. When the subsidy and the money runs out, this simmering social volcano could erupt — resulting in chaos, disruption and death that is more widespread than that inflicted by any contagion.

Government needs to divert its scarce resources from food subsidy toward getting the work force productive safely and quickly. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez 3rd, ascendant over the economic team with the resignation of former Socioeconomic Planning secretary Ernesto Pernia, needs to identify which critical economic activities are immediately viable for restart and in what sequence of urgency, preferably those not dependent solely on foreign supply chains.

The service-producing industries, in which a large segment of our wage earners are engaged in, are obviously the priority

An imaginative public transport system to and from the sites could be introduced — or for that matter, workers could be housed in temporary dormitories near their workplaces. And a curfew could be imposed to monitor eateries, restaurants and entertainment places, and maintain order in the streets.

Which brings us to an egregious systemic anomaly. Deeply embedded in our political culture, the traditional values perverting governance surfaces. Even in times of misfortune, rent seekers and market opportunists abound. Millions from the Super Typhoon “Yolanda” (“Haiyan”) calamity funds have never been accounted for and foreign goods donated were found rotting in warehouses because of logistical glitches; and then this despicable practice of substituting politicians’ labels on donors goods, widely known locally as “epal.”

The undisciplined hordes, the pasaway roaming the streets during lockdowns need to be tamed with creative alternative livelihood, keeping them productive. The Deegong who has just extended quarantine for major cities to May 15 has initiated a Balik Probinsya program to decongest the slums of the cities. But, again, as in any palliative, instant solutions to generations-long festering problem are bound to fail. The pasaway will just earn a much-needed vacation back to their provinces. When the crisis abates, they will be back in their hovels. Meantime, when the masses are hungry and angry, looting and crime are their desperate expressions; forcing the state to exercise its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In a farcical display of political will but no longer instilling fear into an already callused citizenry, martial law has been hinted at.

Global initiatives
Meanwhile, local economic recovery will not be sustainable unless the global economy restarts. The cooperation of the biggest economies, principally China and the US, with substantial participation of other First World countries is imperative. First is to pool resources and technology and share information toward the production of the Covid- 19 vaccine or other cures. Second is to guarantee distribution priority to the countries that need these the most.

Despite Trump defunding the World Health Organization, this is still the most extensively wired worldwide institution that can allocate the needs of member countries efficiently. Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin will still be in charge of their respective countries. By November, an American lameduck president may be presiding over the US.

But before then, the world must work with urgency as one to save humanity no less. We all work together to save our specie, or we perish individually, just the same. And this is the new normal.

Published in LML Polettiques
Monday, 27 April 2020 22:59

Has the US lost control of the pandemic?

LOOK at the figures and what the Americans have been doing, and you decide if the United States has become that proverbial frog being boiled alive, not realizing its quagmire until it’s too late.

At the start of March, the US had 73 Covid-19 cases; by the end of this week, there will most likely be a million Americans infected (960,651 the other day). Only six Americans died from the disease on March 1; as of the other day, 54,256 did. (We have our 7,294 cases and 494 deaths so far.) Think about it: if just a third of 960,651 infected with the disease get to infect more people, how can the US ever get to control its spread?

The US now is the Sickest Man of the world, given the most infected citizens, which account for a third of the 2,920,954 human beings now afflicted with the coronavirus.

The leadership of the US government, embodied by President Donald Trump, is panicking at the same time that it is deluding itself that the disease will just go away. Or dreaming that some magic vaccine will be invented soon, or the Lysol kind of disinfectant will be found to be useful in fighting it by simply ingesting it, as its president remarked. Only a few cities — New York and Chicago — have been locked down in the way Wuhan was when it had only 20,000 cases.

Cases of and deaths due to Covid-19 as of April 26 SOURCE: JOHNS HOPKINS
Some states have even been loosening up their stay-at-home suggestions and would allow even massage parlors to open next week. Americans in the Midwest are protesting in the streets that their inalienable rights are being violated with some states’ orders to close down enterprises. State governors have been quarreling with the President of the United States over supplies and equipment to fight the epidemic. Some 26 million Americans — more than the population of Australia — are officially unemployed.

The US is certainly demonstrating that democracy isn’t just overrated; it is even dangerous to people’s health and lives.

A big part of the US problem is hubris, a psychological disease even a Filipino American has caught, when he commented on my Facebook post March 28 that expressed my worry over the steep rise of Covid-19 cases there at that time:

“This is America, the most powerful country on earth. We will survive. We have the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) the best health regulating agency in the world. Our healthcare systems may not be perfect but we are 10x better than my home country, the Philippines. The people here are very proactive, disciplined and obedient to government policies.

“The preventative measures set in place before the actual crisis occurred are outstanding. My county in the San Francisco Bay area was the first to declare ‘shelter at home,’ even without a single confirmed case unlike your health department. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is mobilized. The National Guards are 24/7 rotating on duty. Economic stimulus checks will be started to be distributed next week. Mortgage relief, student loan relief, unemployment benefits are on the dot… We have the best and the brightest scientists in the world with so much resources. I feel way safer here than in ‘Pinas.”

So much for colonial mentality — or wishful thinking.

But this column is certainly not one of schadenfreude, although I am not such a big fan of the US: it has been the hegemonic imperialist power in the era of hyper-capitalism, which in the postwar era waged 19 wars outside of its borders that by one estimate killed 12 million non-Caucasian peoples.

If America’s loss of control over the coronavirus pandemic leads to its steep economic fall, we will suffer, thanks to our elites’ yoking of the economy to that of the US since it colonized us. In 2019, the US was still the biggest importer of Philippine products and fourth largest exporter to our markets. Probably if somebody with President Duterte’s insight into world affairs had been president in 2010, we might have had a more balanced trade structure, with China on the same level with the US.

We would easily survive a sudden downturn of US exports to the Philippines. But a sudden cutting or even a reduction by half of our exports to that country — which would likely happen with the meltdown of the US economy because of the pandemic — would gouge out a huge chunk of our manufacturing and service industries.

The US still accounts for the bulk of our business-process outsourcing industry, which has been the engine for the boom in retail and restaurant markets in the past several years, as this placed a lot of purchasing power in the hands of the younger generation. In 2008, several of the US biggest financial institutions went belly up — triggering a world financial crisis. What if not just its banks but its manufacturing backbone goes under?

More than the impact of a fall of the US economy on ours though, what could be worrying is the sudden decline of the US as hegemonic superpower. While the US has for most of the last century ridden roughshod over the rest of the world and exploited the developing countries, history has shown that the fall of any empire has created so much chaos, as in the classic case of the fall of the Roman empire leading to the Dark Ages.

The epicenter of the chaos from the fall of the US would be the Middle East because it had dismantled the authoritarian but stable regimes, with the democratic systems that replaced these proving to be disasters as in the case of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Without the armed might and money of the US, a tsunami of Islamic fundamentalist movements would overwhelm the region.

For all its military and technological prowess, Israel is still dependent on the US, which has been giving it an average of $3 billion annually since 1997 to this day. If that ends, its old Arab enemies would be tempted to invade the tiny country as they did in 1967 — and a desperate Israel would retaliate with its nuclear arsenal.

We probably should be praying that North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Il doesn’t recover from his alleged heart surgery: only the US is standing between this nut who has at least 20 nuclear bombs at his disposal and South Korea.

That its three nuclear-powered attack carriers had to go to port because its sailors got infected with Covid-19 is certainly emblematic of the dangerous quagmire the US is in now.

In short, the US had appointed itself as the world’s policeman since the end of the last world war. While this facilitated its extraction of wealth in different ways from developing countries, it was after all the policeman that kept order.

What happens now if the policeman is gravely ill, with neither China nor Russia having the appetite to assume that role?
Published in News

Chokepoints, bottlenecks are costing us lives, unnecessary economic losses and future gains.

The stress testing of systems is happening simultaneously today around the globe, and nations are being graded by their response to the coronavirus pandemic. Beyond pronouncements of politicians, critics and peoples, we can see which countries have clear plans and communication, effective infrastructure, good execution and disciplined citizens and to some extent, which have been favored by nature and which have not. The grading is relentlessly shown in infection and death rates — without chances for appeal.

Since we have the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases for recommendations for the policy level and medical institutions for the health level, we focus here on ground-operation recommendations.

Where we must improve to avoid disaster?

Essential goods are getting stuck up even at low volume. Customs, ports and logistics need increased hours; more personnel; upgraded computers, software and training; and better regulation and transparency. Goods, food even, are getting choked because of extreme delays, such that key needed commodities are endangering our manufacturing of crucial food supply. Even shipping lines are hesitating to transport to the country because of delays in processing — delays in coming out, increasing costs of demurrage and storage, with the latter in need of regulation, making our country’s already expensive handling cost even costlier not just for food but for all items. This is partly because of containers not being withdrawn by many importers, but this can be mitigated by organizing ahead for priorities, announcements of what importations to withhold and communications.

Breakdowns are happening regularly in information technology of different agencies, they need updating and training. There are complete stoppages because there are no back-ups or pre-planned alternative processes. In the last month, clearing of payments got stuck up; Customs billings, Customs payment systems stopped functioning. Various other agencies’ portals, enrollment, titling, registrations, verification, name checking, among other systems, stopped functioning at this crucial period. This has been happening regularly even in normal times, and yet they are charging much more. We expect breakdowns to happen, but the frequency and spread among agencies mean there is not even a functioning back-up system in some of our vital agencies. Without updating our systems soonest, this will happen again and again. This is a period when IT experts can analyze and redesign even during lockdown, let’s do it now. It seems our pride of a tech-savvy population refers to Facebook, Instagram and various social media?

Communications and quick-response culture that need to be planted are not part of most of us. Institutions are not responding to applications or inquiries even after weeks. People and companies need to know if they should anticipate not having income support or no deliveries, and plan accordingly. Some agencies like the Trade department are communicating and responding regularly. Each key agency needs different levels of responders, who are coached on responses and on how to disseminate every few hours, with access to decisions when needed.

We propose further:

1. Public-private partnership teams in operations, not just consultation. Recruit teams with proven operation experience. Skill sets and equipment available in the private sector can squeeze billions more in daily value through more efficient execution with the help of decisions of key government officials. Both the private and public sectors are helping each other out extensively now, but they can do much more, much better together if not just in an advisory capacity but being part of execution together. Without liquidity extensions and assistance, the private sector cannot last long.

2. Full-time, quick-response decisions are needed 24/7. Delays or non-decisions for situations on the ground are compromising life and death situations , reputation of the government and forgoing massive possible sources of income and savings, hurting morale and creating room for politics. Some decisions need live discussion, others need to be listed and responded to at a later time.

3. Food and rice need bigger buffer — a non-negotiable. We might meet possible tightening of supply if countries reduce trade, our purchases abroad need to be locked in, not just promised, to tide us over until our rice harvest season in October. Start orienting our people’s diets to be more diversified and adaptable, improve our agricultural yields and incentives.

4. Speed up national adoption of digital billing, payments and receipting systems, KYC (Know Your Customer), monitors and ledger systems, etc. We can take occasion today to advance the technology of operations in the country. Needed in executing the disbursements and inflows that need to be executed safely today with minimal physical presence or movement or pilferage losses will be very high or payments will get stuck up, all logistics won’t flow and the real economy as well won’t.

5. Plan now for increased health strains to the public and private sectors. How to use tests, operate safely, for after quarantine — as there will be another wave of patients when travel and the economy are liberalized to operate again.

6. Simulation studies, together with private actual operators and people, on effects of an extension of quarantine, to estimate more realistically financial, food, logistic needs and the costs and how to deliver. Without sit-downs with operators, unnecessary errors will cost a lot and even cause more deaths that are avoidable.

7. Productivity must be managed, modernized and not just kept up. This is a good time for government and organizations to do their updating, reformatting of their organizations and technologies, which were not possible before when everyone was busy with operations.

8. The same reformat is true for individuals for their careers, to catch up on self-development, grow with the family, empower those around us. Not just use this time to coast and relax all thru the holiday. What you do now will determine if after the unavoidable difficulties, you and your family will be one of the winners in the new world!

New Worlds by IDSI (Integrated Development Studies Institute) aims to present frameworks based on a balance of economic theory, historical realities, ground success in real business and communities and attempt for common good, culture and spirituality. We welcome logical feedback and possibly working together with compatible frameworks.
Published in News
Monday, 27 April 2020 22:43


Editorial cartoon.
Published in News
Monday, 27 April 2020 22:40


Editorial Cartoon.
Published in News
Friday, 24 April 2020 08:31

Like a thief in the night, China…

Almost every morning during these COVID-19 lockdown weeks, I have been posting on Facebook the front page of the digital version of the Inquirer.

For the computer illiterate, the Inquirer digital version is exactly what the day’s newspaper looks like, and you can flip the pages with your finger on the touchscreen of your gadget. It is best to read on a tablet while you are having your breakfast coffee. You have to be a subscriber to access the entire issue.

Oh, but I must say that there is nothing like the smell of the news and the day’s Sudoku on real paper. Alas, there has been no delivery for more than a month now.

When the Inquirer came out with the editorial “Betraying Homonhon” last Tuesday, I wanted to immediately share the stand-alone online version, but it was not yet uploaded so I took a screenshot of the Opinion page and posted it. An hour later, the free online version was up.

Why was I riled enough to post the editorial for many to read right away? It was because while we were cloistered in our homes, a Chinese-operated vessel was creeping into Homonhon Island in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, to haul away chromite ore from a mining site operated by Techiron Resources Inc. That, despite the lockdown in the province and other parts of the country.

Well, elsewhere, the Chinese have extracted black sand and marine resources, seized Philippine territory—plus the hearts, minds, guts, and balls of some of our elected leaders.

Homonhon is the island in our archipelago where, some historians argue, one Fernão de Magalhães/Fernando de Magallanes/Ferdinand Magellan first set foot (not on Limasawa Island) and marked the beginning of Spanish colonization and the advent of Christianity in the Philippines, something that the locals commemorate. An event whose tragic outcome Yoyoy Villame had delightfully immortalized in song.

Fast forward to 2020, almost 500 years since, the little island is at odds with present-day extractors, modern-day explorers, and despoilers of the environment from nearby.

According to CBCP News of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the government had “allow[ed] a Chinese-manned vessel to load mineral ores despite the province-wide quarantine.” This sparked citizens’ appeals for the closure of mining operations on the island.

MV VW Peace, a Panamanian-registered vessel with a crew of 13 Chinese and four from Myanmar, arrived in Homonhon on April 4 to load about 7,000 tons of chromite ore. The loading was at first delayed but was later resumed when the Department of Environment and Natural Resources reversed its first decision to suspend operations. Why so enamored with China? We know the answer.

Another petition from the Philippine-Misereor Partnership Inc. and the Visayas State University decried the effect of mining on forest diversity and the ocean surrounding the island. Misereor is the development arm of the Catholic bishops of Germany.

“The mines would affect the forest, fauna diversity and also influence the productivity of the ocean around the island (considering the ridge-to-reef effect) which is the main source of livelihood of the residents of Homonhon… Not only would we lose valuable species, but (mining would) also affect the environment and the lives of the people. This petition now aims to hasten the bill or law that proposes to declare the island as a critical habitat and which could and possibly prohibit any mining activities.”

Here we are waiting to exhale, cocooned in our private abodes, riding out the COVID-19 long-drawn pandemic that visited our planet while out there, an island community must battle foreign, plague-carrying intruders.

What a timely sneak of thieves in the night. But this is not the first time on the island or elsewhere. The password for entry: China.

Moving indeed is the music video “Dakila Ka, Bayani Ka” from the Department of Education, dedicated to our heroic health workers and other frontliners serving here and abroad during these dark times. It is performed by about a dozen Filipino artists/musicians, most of them under quarantine. The music and images brought tears to my eyes especially because of nurses and doctors in the family, my late father among them.
Published in News
Friday, 24 April 2020 08:19


Editorial cartoon.
Published in News
Wednesday, 22 April 2020 15:34

Alternative aftermaths

Part 1 Covid-19 and lockdowns

THE movie “I Am Legend” comes to mind as one of the alternative “end of times” scenarios. I quote its synopsis: “Years after a plague kills most of humanity and transforms the rest into monsters, the sole survivor in New York City struggles valiantly to find a cure in this post-apocalyptic action thriller.” Movies have a way of predicting the possible outcomes of a given hypothesis. What limits or unlocks the universe of possibilities is simply the imagination — either infertile or vivid — of the author or the screenwriter from which the movie is adapted.

Films are also reflections of man’s hopes and fears writ large with the audience vicariously involved, safe within the confines of dark cinemas or home theaters. But audiences demand that at the end, there must be a redeeming value or at the very least a deux ex machina that restores order — a universal karma that must overarch the lives of men.

What is eerie is that the current Covid-19 mimics the plot of the movie, giving credence to the “reality follows fiction” dictum. Only the finale has not yet been scripted. Will the world find a cure — a vaccine — in time to save humanity? Reality’s final intent has still to unfold.

A vaccine to cure or immunize the population may be available in 18 months. Meantime, China, the world’s newly minted benefactor will have to work its factories double time to produce the much-needed medical supplies and equipment for the hospitals. And there is fear of a second deadly wave, as China’s labor force breaks quarantine. Prognosis for each country is imprecise. Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are expected to “flatten their curves,” but not Italy or Spain. They will be decimated. When China or the United States makes the scarce vaccine available, Western Judeo-Christian countries or China’s allies may have priority. The impoverished countries in the fringes and in the Middle East be damned. And how do you think the Islamic world will react? The permutations are endless, but Darwin’s law of natural selection will kick in — which simply means, the fittest will survive; a logical complement to the hypothesis that results in a Malthusian catastrophe.” (“Covid-19 conspiracy theories,” The Manila Times, April 1, 2020.)

The slums of Asia and India, the favelas of Latin America, and the shanty towns of Africa may be written off. They are unable to quarantine themselves seriously as this is not the priority for the poor and the “dregs of society.” And social or physical distancing is alien not only to their culture but the realities of their lives. Multi-families live in shacks and hovels.

And the jobs and food situation for survival need to be included in the calculus. There will be practically a few of the former and not enough of the latter. Hunger will descend and, perhaps, starvation and famine not unlike the intermittent years that hit the Sahel region and sub-Saharan Africa in 1968 to 2016 or North Korea from 1994 to 1998. Admittedly this extremely grim scenario belongs more to the movie disaster genre. Reality most probably will fall along the alternative route.

Point of departure
Where are we today, four-and-a-half months after the first contagion and subsequent first death was reported? As we go to press, we have 2.2 million to 2.5 million cases, with 150,000 deaths and rising. That’s 0.002 percent of the world population of 7.7 billion — minuscule compared to an estimated 0.01 percent to 5.56 percent deaths in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Hysteria and terror are the handmaidens of fear. And we have been flagellated by an amalgam of facts, fiction and fake news underpinned by ignorance, precluding us from facing lucidly monsters we ourselves created. Although Covid-19 grew exponentially in four months, the protocols on quarantine, physical distancing and health practices have begun to “flatten the curve” in some countries. But America, remiss in its role as the world’s hegemon, is now the epicenter of Covid-19. But experts have reduced morbidity projections from a high 240,000 to 60,000. Still a tragic figure compared to 9/11’s 3,000 dead that triggered two American wars and untold misery. In other countries, Covid-19 is still raging, but country-to-country assessment differs — depending on how survival protocols are enforced.

World economy
I borrow heavily from Fareed Zakaria’s reportage, a journalist of global renown on the state of the world’s economy that we are just at the “early stages of what is going to become a series of cascading crises.” And we are not going back to anything resembling normal — a position that Adam Tooze, a British historian and an eminent academic agreed with. “The old economic and political playbooks don’t apply,” he declared. The healthcare crisis is only the first phase that brought the world’s leading economies on their knees. Long profligate, the world’s governments and their desire to uplift the lives first of their elite and the overclass, then their masses, perhaps as an afterthought, produced a wealth gap between the “haves and the have nots” that caused the government and private sectors to be mired in debt. Credit Suisse estimates that the world’s richest 1 percent now owns half the world’s wealth. This is the “old normal.” Do we want to revert to that? And the global gross domestic product is $90 trillion, adding $260 trillion in public and private debt.

Many of the leading countries were caught naively unprepared, including America. It has lost 17 million jobs and on track for 30-percent unemployment. The next phase will be the debt crunch, with leading countries defaulting on their loans precipitating a fiscal breakdown. Italy, the third largest European economy is toast; it can no longer rely on Germany, its ‘go-to’ banker to tide it over. Germany, the strongest European economy, is expected to contract by more than 5 percent to start with.

Middle East and oil countries
The price of oil, the lifeblood of the industrialized nations and its main source of energy, is on a free fall, its demand having collapsed, settling perhaps at $10 per barrel. Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Will have lakes of unsold oil. Below $60 per barrel, oil becomes unprofitable, and government revenue will dry up, sinking the economies of Libya, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq. And this will lead to instability and political turmoil, and massive shift of immigrants and refugees inundating borders.

The knee-jerk palliative of a lockdown to contain, then mitigate the contagion saved lives. But there is a trade-off on the country’s economic life, which will also impact negatively on people’s lives, prompting reversal. Of note is South Korea and China itself, where incidences of contagion have eventually abated and lockdowns have been lifted. US President Donald Trump, who irresponsibly refused to enforce lockdowns resulting in countless American lives lost, is now disingenuously shifting blame to state governors for his criminal incompetence. He backtracked on his earlier assertion that as president, he is in total control over the states. His insistence still on a three-phased reopening of the US economy before November smacks of brazen politicking, an eye toward sanitizing his reelection bid.

Next week: Part 2 Economic recovery

Published in LML Polettiques
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