Action for Economic Reforms (AER) calls on our national government to immediately address the different bottlenecks that our country faces in reducing the spread of COVID-19. Just a few days ago, we logged the highest single-day tally of new cases, numbering more than 26,000. The Health Professionals Alliance against COVID-19 (HPAAC) has sounded the alarm about our overwhelmed health facilities, which could no longer accommodate severely sick patients.

The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) has to be self-critical and re-examine its strategy. Beyond the fact that it flip-flops on decisions regarding quarantine measures, the real issue is whether or not it makes sound decisions based on the data and the science. Easing up during a time when cases continue to rise at an alarming level (over 26,000 a day) and when health facilities are overstretched and health workers are exhausted is not sound at all.

Acceleration of vaccination is a central task, and indeed we have stepped up on this. However, our vaccine supply remains very limited because of tight global supply, even as a significant number of people express vaccine hesitancy. Government also needs to distribute vaccines equitably, especially to local government units outside Metro Manila, where cases are surging due to the Delta variant. We are far from reaching herd immunity, in the face of the deadly Delta variant.

Amid COVID-19’s rampage that is destroying our health system, we have to take drastic measures. We do not want the Indian or Indonesian crisis to happen to us. Doctors have warned us that this may happen if we do not adopt the hard measures.

The purpose of a strict lockdown is to help slow the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, and ease the heavy burden faced by our health workers and the whole health system. Note that the cases are surging not only in the National Capital Region but also in the provinces. We have to apply a stricter level of quarantine at the national level.

But at the same time, a temporary restriction on mobility is insufficient, and has to be accompanied by other essential measures to make it effective. Our lockdowns have had limited effectiveness because they are porous and they are not accompanied by increased human health resources, testing, contract tracing, quarantine facilities, medicines and supplies, and relief for the hungry and unemployed.

We thus ask government to urgently execute temporary stricter restrictions on mobility. This is a necessary step towards the recovery of our health system. This will also facilitate economic recovery. But for this to be fully effective, government must be able to overcome its deficiencies in the past.

Spokesman Harry Roque, in his infamous outburst, argued against the doctors who appealed for stricter mobility. His specious argument is that government does not want to deprive people of food and income. But his approach is wrong. Government’s responsibility is to provide relief, and social protection and not to expose people from getting sick or from dying.

For people to fully comply with the lockdown rules, the government must provide ayuda for the poor, the hungry, and the unemployed. Easing mobility when cases continue to surge amid a crumbling health system will also lead to economic disruption, but with greater costs.

Surging cases deter people from being mobile and will thus dampen consumption and consequently production. On the other, hand temporary restrictions on mobility in conjunction with providing relief to the poor, will enable quicker recovery.

Here is a stark lesson: Countries that are able to contain the pandemic through strict quarantine measures combined with decisive health interventions and ample economic aid are the first to recover jobs, investments, and growth.

Government points out its financial constraint to provide relief or ayuda and to do other interventions to contain COVID-19. But the financial constraint is surmountable.

Consider the following:

  1. The Philippine government will receive from the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) the equivalent of approximately US$2.78 billion. The IMF leadership decided to credit the SDRs to all its member countries towards boosting global liquidity and helping countries, especially developing ones, obtain the funding for their pandemic response. Actually, Philippine government owns the SDRs equivalent to US$2.78 billion. And the amount can be used without any strings attached for the government to spend for fighting the pandemic. We thus propose that the amount of US$2.78 billion be earmarked for additional essential health items and for ayuda.
  2. On top of using the IMF’s SDRs credited to the Philippine government, the Executive and Congress should change budget priorities and reallocate huge amounts for COVID-19 response, including ayuda. For example, we question the huge counter-insurgency and intelligence funds (the reality is that the insurgency is weak and is not a threat to national security) and the opaque pork barrel funds for favored politicians. It goes without saying that government stamp out corruption, most especially in a time of emergency.
  3. Economists, multilateral organizations, and financial institutions uniformly agree that the Philippine government can spend more through borrowing. After all, the country has undertaken the structural reforms resulting in a good credit rating, thereby enabling us to borrow. The standard criticism is that the government has been timid in its public spending, which also explains why the country has not flattened the epi curve and has not stimulated recovery.

The availability of foreign exchange from the IMF’s SDRs, the realignment of the budget, and the space for borrowing make our case and the call of health professionals for a lockdown combined with relief and other measures strong and convincing.