ULAT AT MUNGKAHI Ukol sa Pambansang Ekonomiya at Mensahe Para Sa Pamumuno at Pagkakaisa

(Official transcript of Vice President Leni Robredo’s Report and Suggestions 24 August 2020. Translation to English included here)

Nitong mga nakaraang linggo, nakasama natin sa ilang pagpupulong ang mga researchers, analysts, propesor, at iba pang eksperto sa ekonomiya. Gaya ng napakarami sa atin, nababahala din sila. Humaharap ako sa inyo ngayon para ibahagi ang kanilang mga insight at rekomendasyon kung papaano natin maiaahon ang bansa sa kasalukuyang paghihirap, at para na rin ihayag ang implikasyon nito para sa ating lahat.

Malinaw ang epekto ng pandemya. Halos natigil ang daloy ng tao, produkto, at serbisyo. Bumagal ang pasok ng mga sangkap para sa produksyon, at bumagsak ang demand para sa mga produkto. Buong mundo, dumadaan dito, kaya pati exports at remittances, apektado. Marami nang nagsarang negosyo; marami nang nawalan ng trabaho.

Vice President Leni Robredo delivers her report and suggestions on dealing with COVID-19 on 24 August 2020)

Sa mga pagpupulong na dinaluhan natin, isang tema ang paulit-ulit na nababanggit: Kumpiyansa. Kumpiyansa ang konseptong nagtatahi sa pandemya at sa mga epektong pang-ekonomiya nito. Nagtitipid ang lahat; umiiwas tayong lumabas para kumain, mamili, o mamasyal dahil hindi natin alam kung hanggang kailan magiging ganito ang situwasyon. Nagdadalawang-isip magbukas ang mga negosyo, dahil wala silang kumpiyansang kikita sila dahil numipis ang mga kliyente, bukod pa sa pangambang mahawa ang mga empleyado nila. May mga naglakas-loob na magbukas, pero bumaba lang din ang kumpiyansa nang makitang halos walang customer ang mga negosyo nila. Halos walang bagong nag-iinvest, nag-eexpand ng operasyon, o gustong magtaya, dahil sa malalim na uncertainty na dala ng pandemya. Takot ding gumastos tulad ng dati kahit ang mga may trabaho, dahil baka bukas-makalawa, mapilitang maglay-off ang mga pinapasukan nila.

Sa harap ng lahat ng ito, exponential ang pagtaas ng mga kaso—ilang linggo nang halos tatlong libo hanggang mahigit anim na libo kada araw ang new confirmed cases. Hindi maikakaila: Habang tumatagal, lalo pang lumalala ang situwasyon.

Walang ibang kayang mag-abot ng salbabida sa ekonomiya ngayon kundi ang gobyerno; gobyerno lang ang may pondo at makinarya para magparating ng sapat at ibayong saklolo. Hindi sapat ang mga probisyong nakatala at perang inilaan sa Bayanihan 2. Government must spend more, spend efficiently, and spend quickly, with the utmost sense of urgency, as if our economic survival depends on it—because it does. And yet, heto tayo, nakasandal pa rin sa isang pre-COVID budget.

Hindi dapat naiipit ang diskursong pang-ekonomiya sa usapin ng lockdown o no lockdown. Kahit pa ipilit nating magbukas ang mga negosyo; kahit pa sumuong ang mga empleyado sa panganib—hindi pa rin dadaloy nang husto ang enerhiyang ekonomiko, dahil lahat tayo, nangangambang magkasakit, nangangambang mabaon sa utang o mawalan ng pagkakakitaan, nangangamba para sa kinabukasan natin at ng ating mga pamilya.

Pangunahin sa mga rekomendasyong pang-ekonomiya—gaya ng naidiin ko na sa ibang mga pahayag—ang paglalatag ng masinsin, mabilis, at malinaw na mga hakbang para tugunan ang pandemya. Idinidiin ko: Hindi magkatunggali ang mga suliranin ng kalusugan at ekonomiya. Address the pandemic, and we set in motion the gears of the economy.

Kabilang sa mga mungkahi natin ukol dito: Ibayong tulong at pagpapahalaga sa medical frontliners, pati na sa mga ospital; at ang pagpapatibay ng pambansang healthcare system. Efficient at mabilis na pagkalap ng datos, at ang pagdedesisyon batay sa datos na ito. Malawakan, mabisa, at agarang turnover ng mga COVID-19 test—sapat para makatulong sa pagbaba ng pinakahuli nating positivity rate na 10.5 percent, na malayo sa less than five percent na itinakdang standard ng World Health Organization. Indikasyon ang mataas na positivity rate na ito na bagaman kinakayang abutin ang mga naunang itinakdang testing target, kailangan pa ring ipagpatuloy ang pagpapalawak nito. Makikita rin ito sa pagbaba ng reproduction number ng virus sa Metro Manila at karatig-probinsya mula 1.5 hanggang 1.1 matapos ang dalawang linggong MECQ. Kailangang umabot ito sa mas mababa sa 1—at kailangan ng mas agresibong mga tugon para magawa ito.

Bukod pa dito: Ayon mismo sa datos ng DOH, 48 percent lang ng severe at critical cases ng COVID-19 ang naka-admit sa mga ospital sa ngayon. Sa mga namatay, singkuwenta porsyento ang hindi man lamang na-admit sa ospital. Ibig sabihin, marami sa mga kababayan natin, nagdurusa o namamatay nang hindi man lang nakakatuntong sa ospital. Kailangang linawin at gawan ng maayos na SOP ang pag-admit ng mga COVID-19 patients sa mga pasilidad. Kailangan din ng isang sistema para hanapin ang mga may malubhang sintomas, at dalhin sila sa mga ospital para mabawasan ang mga namamatay.

Pagdating sa contact tracing: Si Mayor Magalong na ang nagsabi na sa bawat confirmed COVID case, minimum na ang 37 na katao na kailangang tukuyin para malaman kung nahawa sila. Sa ngayon, sa NCR mismo, limang tao kada confirmed case pa lang ang kaya nating i-trace, malayong-malayo sa kailangan. Isang solusyon ang paggamit ng teknolohiya para maging mas efficient at mabilis ang contact tracing. May mga mabisang tracing app na available na para dito; kailangang i-standardize ang mga ito para hindi nagkakanya-kanya ang mga LGU.

Karugtong ng contact tracing ang pangalawa nating mungkahi: Dagdag pa sa paggamit ng teknolohiya, i-harmonize ang cash-for-work programs sa mga pangangailangan para sa COVID. May mahigit 15 million na katao sa Listahanan ng DSWD; maaaring i-hire ang marami sa kanila, through the LGU, para makatulong sa contact tracing. Kung magagawa ito, tataas ang kapasidad natin for contact tracing at maaampat ang pagkalat ng COVID-19.

Ikatlo: Siguruhing hindi malulugmok sa kahirapan ang mga nawawalan ng trabaho; kabilang sa puwedeng gawin ukol dito ang pagbuo ng sistema para sa unemployment insurance. Maaaring makita ang balangkas nito sa batas tulad ng Unemployment Insurance Bill ni Congresswoman Stella Quimbo: Magbigay ng kahit bahagi lang ng pasahod sa mga newly unemployed, at magsagawa ng counseling, retraining, at job matching para sa kanila.

Ikaapat: Kailangang i-empower ang mga negosyo na mag-shift ng mga produkto, serbisyo, o business model na nakatuon sa pagtugon sa pandemya. Halimbawa ang garment industry, na nagtatangka ngayong ibaling ang operasyon sa paggawa ng mga PPE. Dumadaing na sila dahil sa mga hirit ng pamahalaan na hindi up to standard ang mga produkto nila. Sa halip na bawalan at pulisin lang sila, bakit hindi sila i-empower para maabot ang mga standard na ito? Maglabas ng step-by-step guidelines. Iugnay na sila sa mga testing services para malaman nila ang mga requirements na dapat maabot ng produkto nila. Maganda rin kung gobyerno mismo ang magtatayo ng pasilidad na mabilis na mate-test ang mga PPE; sa halip na umasa sa medical grade testing ng ibang bansa, siguruhin na nating kaya itong gawin ng mga trained teams na Pilipino. Dagdag pa dito, maaari din silang pahiramin ng kapital para makapagpasahod ng mas maraming tao, at para makabili ng raw materials. Kung maaari, iugnay sila sa mga abot-kayang pagkukunan ng raw materials na ito. Marami ring maliliit na mananahi na kung bibigyan ng pagkakataong makilahok ay makakaambag sa pambansang produksyon ng mga PPE.

Ikalima: Kailangan din ng isang malawakang programa para matulungan ang maliliit at community-based na negosyo na bumuo ng online presence. May mga bagay tulad ng pagseset-up ng online digital payment system na hindi madaling sundan para sa mga MSME. Karugtong nito, kailangan ding padaliin ang pagbubukas ng account sa bangko, at tulungan ang lahat na makapag-sign up sa mga digital modes of payment. Kung magagawa ito, mapapanatili ang daloy ng ekonomiya, habang iniiwas ang mga bumibili sa banta ng COVID-19.

Ikaanim: Siguruhin ang ayuda para sa mga MSME at maliliit na negosyante. DTI na ang nagsabi: Tumigil ang operasyon ng mahigit kalahati sa mga MSME dahil sa pandemya. Katumbas ito ng tinatayang 2.6 million na kataong nawalan ng trabaho. Bukod pa sa nabanggit kong unemployment insurance system, puwede ring maglaan ng pondo para sa wage subsidies sa mga MSME na magko-commit na hindi sila magtatanggal ng mga empleyado. Dapat ding suportahan ang mga LGU para matulungan nila ang mga maliliit na negosyo, kabilang na ang suporta sa pagtatayo ng credit mitigation services, para gabayan sila sa paghahanap ng loans, paggawa ng business plan, at ayusin ang pangangasiwang pinansyal para hindi sila tuluyang magsara.

Ikapito, para sa mga OFWs. Libu-libo sa kanila ang napilitang umuwi, o hindi makabalik sa trabaho, dahil sa pandemya. Dapat siguruhin ang mga reintegration at livelihood programs para sa kanila, bukod pa sa pakikipag-ugnayan ng mga embahada natin sa ibang bansa para magawan ng paraan ang pagbalik nila sa trabaho.

Ikawalo. Ang susunod na kalaban matapos ang sakit: Gutom. Maiiwasan ito sa pagbabahagi ng pantawid sa COVID sa mga pinakanangangailangan. Mayroon nang Listahanan ang DSWD para matukoy sila: Kung mabibigyan ng 5,000 pesos kada buwan para sa apat na buwan ang 10 million poorest families, aabutin ito ng 200 billion pesos. Maliit na halaga ito para mailigtas sila mula sa gutom. Dalawang beses nang nakapagbigay ng ayudang pinansyal ang pambansang pamahalaan. Sang-ayon ang maraming eksperto na dapat pang maglaan ng dagdag na pondo para mai-extend ito.

Ikasiyam, tungkol pa rin sa gutom: Dapat tutukan ang mga sektor na sisigurong may makakain tayo. Suportahan ang mga magsasaka, manginigisda, at ang mga livestock farmers; bantayan ang mga supply chain ng mga kinakailangang input sa pagsasaka; at madaliin ang pagtatayo ng imprastrukturang magpapataas ng kanilang kita tulad ng farm to market roads at cold storage facilities. Malinaw sa huling datos na agrikultura ang pinaka-resilient na sektor ng ating ekonomiya; kung gayon, dapat itong buhusan ng suporta dahil kakailanganin natin silang sandalan habang pinapanday ang isang better normal.

Ikasampu. Malaking hamon ang pandemya, pero pagkakataon din itong tugunan ang mga matagal nang ugat ng mga problemang ekonomiko ng bansa—at isa sa pinakamahalaga dito ang income inequality. Panahon nang iangkop ang sahod ng mga empleyado sa ambag nila sa lipunan, sabay ng pagsigurong may sapat silang benepisyo, kagamitan, at suporta, na lalong kailangan ngayong panahon ng pandemya. Halimbawa na lang ang mga health workers na abot-abot ang sakripisyo sa panahong ito, at mga guro na tumatayong last line of defense para hindi na tumawid sa susunod na henerasyon ang mga epekto ng COVID-19. Mahalagang hakbang ito para magkaroon sila ng kumpiyansang sumuong sa panganib, at bigyan sila ng sense of security para sa kinabukasan.

Ikalabing-isa. Marami sa mga mungkahi natin ang nangangailangan ng mas magandang digital infrastructure. Puwede itong matugunan ng mismong pamahalaan sa pagpapatayo ng mga shared cell sites sa mga lugar na mahina o walang signal. Paraan ito para sumulong sa isang better normal—mas maraming may access sa internet, mas maraming makakapasok sa mga online classes o makakalahok sa ekonomiya, at magiging mas mabisang instrumento ang teknolohiya para sa nation-building.

Kailangang idiin: Kumpiyansa ang nagpapagulong ng ekonomiya. At ang totoo, kahit pa ba noong bago mag-pandemya, hindi rin maabot ng ekonomiya natin ang potensyal nito, dahil sa kakulangan ng kumpiyansa. Bagsak na ang foreign direct investments bago pa dumating ang COVID. Bumabagal din noon pa man ang paglago ng exports. Laging kapos ang paglago ng ekonomiya sa mga target na gobyerno na mismo ang nagtatakda.

Kaya nga, lalo pa ngayong humaharap tayo sa pandemya, hindi nakakatulong ang mga gawaing lalong nagpapababa ng kumpiyansa. Paano ba naman magkakaroon ng kumpiyansa kung patuloy ang mga alegasyon ng korupsyon—sa mga overpriced na PPE set at ayuda, sa PhilHealth na inaasahan nating magbibigay sa atin ng sense of security sakaling magkasakit tayo. Paanong magkakaroon ng kumpiyansa kung ni hindi natin masiguro kung saan napupunta ang mga pondo? Paanong magkakakumpiyansa, kung sa tuwing magpe-presscon ang liderato, wala tayong linaw na mahinuha? Malinaw na handang sumagwan ang lahat; ang kulang na lang, ‘yung magtututok sa atin sa dapat nating kapuntahan. ‘Yung magtitimon.

Hindi mahirap unawain ang sentimyento ng marami: Na para bang walang timon, walang direksyon, walang malinaw na horizon kung kailan at paano masosolusyonan ang pandemya. Na para bang aabutan lang tayo ng kaunting ayuda, tapos bahala ka na, magkulong ka na lang sa bahay at mabuhay nang nangangamba. Na sa atin pa ang sisi kapag may nahawa o namatay—tayo pa ang pasaway. Na parang wala na tayong maaasahan sa mga pinuno—o para ba mismong wala nang namumuno. Na para bang iniwan na lang tayo para intindihin ang isa’t isa. Hindi pagbabatikos ang pagbitbit ng mga sentimyentong ito: This is our reality. Karapatan at tungkulin natin to expect and demand more from our leaders. Pero nitong nakaraang limang buwan, lalong luminaw ito—na tayo-tayo na rin nga lang ang iintindi sa isa’t isa. Ito mismo ang nagbibigay ng pag-asa sa akin sa mga panahong ganito: Walang dadaig sa Pilipino pagdating sa pag-intindi sa kapwa Pilipino.

Tinatawag muli tayo ng panahon: Palawakin ang saklaw ng malasakit; ituon sa kapwa ang anumang pagkilos. Asikasuhin ang isa’t isa. Unawaing magkakarugtong ang diwa nating lahat. Maraming hakbang para isakongkreto ito: Alagaan ang sariling kalusugan—dahil bawat isang mahahawa ng COVID-19 ay makakadagdag sa dalahin ng pambansang healthcare system. Tangkilikin ang mga lokal na negosyo, maging sa mga online platform o sa ating mga komunidad. Kumustahin ang kapitbahay; iabot ang makakayang tulong kung gipit na sila. Sa mga bangko at landlord, maging makatao sa pagtrato ng mga nahihirapang magbayad ng utang o upa. Mag-volunteer, ituon ang enerhiya pabalik sa mga komunidad, at hangga’t makakaya, siguruhin na hindi aabutin ng gutom ang mga nakapaligid sa ating naghihikahos sa panahong ito.

Ginagawa na ng napakamarami sa atin ito, at kung nagagawa natin ito nang walang nagtitimon, isipin na lang ninyo ang kaya pa nating gawin kung mayroon. Sa New Zealand at Vietnam, bumilang sila ng maraming araw bago nagkaroon ng bagong kaso ng COVID-19. Nang matukoy na mayroon muli nito, mabilis silang kumilos, all hands on deck, para maampat ang pagkalat. Ganito ring sense of urgency ang ipinakita ng South Korea nang biglang pumalo ulit ang mga kaso doon. Noon namang ikawalo ng Agosto, ginanap sa Taiwan ang kauna-unahan nilang concert sa panahon ng COVID-19; mahigit sampung libo ang dumalo. Pinayagan ito dahil epektibo nilang nadaig ang pandemya: Dahil may malinaw na plano, mabisang mga polisiya na nakabase sa siyensiya, at mabilis na pagkilos dahil buong-buo ang tiwala nila sa pamunuan at sa isa’t isa.

Kaya din natin ito; kinakaya na dapat natin ito; napakahaba ng kasaysayan natin ng tagumpay laban sa mga hamon na tulad nito. Maaaring may mga pagkakataon na nakalimutan natin kung sino tayo. Ngayon, ipinapaalala ng isa na namang hamon, at idinidiin ko, kung sino talaga ang Pilipino: Bukas at matibay ang loob. Maparaan. Laging iniintindi ang kapwa, lalo na sa panahon ng kagipitan.

At kung walang mamumuno, tayo mismo ang hahakbang, tayo mismo ang magtutulungan, tayo mismo ang bibitbit sa isa’t isa. Tayo mismo ang haharap, tayo mismo ang mangunguna, gagampanan natin ang anumang tungkulin para daigin ang anumang pagsubok, sa ngalan ng ating kapwa. Tayo mismo ang tititig sa mukha ng krisis na ito at buong-tapang na ihahayag: Maaari mo kaming mapaluhod, pero hindi kailanman mapipigilan ang paulit-ulit at taas-noo naming pagtindig. Pilipino kami. Mas malakas kami sa anumang pagsubok.

Buo ang loob ko. Sa pananalig, sa paninindigan, at higit sa lahat, sa pagkakaisa, madadaig natin ang krisis na ito.

Tiwala ako: kaya natin ito.

[OFFICIAL ENGLISH TRANSLATION]

Over the past few weeks, we met with several researchers, analysts, professors, and other experts on the economy on how we can move forward amidst the pandemic. They, like many of us, are greatly concerned. I come before you today to share their insights and recommendations on how our economy can recover from this crisis and what all these mean for us.

The effects of this pandemic are clear. The flow of people, of products, and of services is nearly at a standstill. The stream of supply for production slowed down and the demand for goods massively dropped. This is happening across the globe, affecting even our exports and remittances. Many businesses were forced to shut their doors, and many were forced to lose their jobs.

One theme repeatedly came up in our meetings: Confidence. Confidence threads the pandemic and its effects on our economy together. All of us are keeping our savings in check, cautious to go out to eat, shop, or travel because we are unsure how long this situation will go on. Businesses are thinking twice about reopening because they have little confidence they will earn enough to survive given fewer clients; this is on top of their concern for employees who could get infected. Those who were brave enough to reopen find themselves losing confidence with the lack of customers. Almost no new investments are coming in, no one is expanding their operations, and no one is willing to risk more than they should given the deep uncertainty caused by this pandemic. Even those who have jobs are cautious to spend as they did before, worried that in the next day or two, their employers might be forced to lay them off.

Amidst all these, cases of infections are increasing exponentially. For several weeks now, almost three thousand to more than six thousand new confirmed cases have been reported every day. It is clear: The more time goes by, the worse the situation gets.

Only the government can extend a lifeline to the economy; only government has the resources and machinery to do things at a significant enough scale. The provisions indicated and the funds allocated under Bayanihan 2 are not enough. The government must spend more, spend efficiently, and spend quickly, with the utmost sense of urgency, as if our economic survival depends on it – because it does. And yet, here we are, still dependent on a pre-COVID budget.

The discourse on economy should not merely revolve around whether to impose a lockdown or not. Even if businesses open, even if the employees brave their way through danger, the energies of the economy will not flow as it should, because we are all anxious about getting sick, anxious about losing the means to earn or being chained by debt, and anxious about our fate and our family’s future.

First among our economic recommendations, as I have repeatedly emphasized in previous statements, is to come up with a comprehensive, quick, and clear plan to address this pandemic. Again: Healthcare and the economy are not in conflict with each other. Address the pandemic, and we set in motion the gears of the economy.

Among the suggestions regarding this are: To go above and beyond to support and value our medical frontliners and hospitals, and to strengthening our national healthcare system. Efficient and rapid data gathering and evidence-based decision making. Extensive, efficient, and immediate turnover of COVID-19 tests – enough to help decrease the most recent 10.5 percent positivity rate, which is far from the less than five percent standard set by the World Health Organization. The high positivity rate indicates that, regardless of the previous testing targets that we have met, we must continue to widen our reach. The same goes with the decrease of the virus’ reproduction number in Metro Manila and its nearby provinces, from 1.5 to 1.1 after two weeks of MECQ. We need to go below the threshold of 1 for this indicator—a task that requires more aggressive measures.

In addition to this, according to data from the DOH itself, only 48 percent of severe and critical COVID-19 cases are admitted in hospitals. Among those who have died, fifty percent didn’t even get to be admitted. So many of our fellow Filipinos suffered or died without ever stepping foot in a hospital. We need clear and efficient Standard Operating Procedures for the admission of COVID-19 patients in facilities. There also needs to be a system for tracing those with severe symptoms; we need to bring them to hospitals as well, so that the number of those who die from the disease can be decreased.

On contact tracing: Mayor Magalong himself has said that for every confirmed COVID case, at least 37 people have to be traced and identified to find out if they have been infected. As of now, within the NCR itself, we only have the capacity to trace five people for every confirmed COVD case, a far cry from what is needed. One solution is the use of technology to make contact tracing faster and more efficient. Effective tracing apps are already available; this technology needs to be standardized so that LGUs don’t end up working in silos.

Our second recommendation is related to contact tracing: In addition to using technology, harmonize cash for work programs to address COVID response needs. The DSWD’s Listahanan database has more than 15 million families. Many of them can be hired through the LGU to help with contact tracing. If this can be accomplished, we can augment and strengthen our contact tracing capabilities and we can abate the spread of COVID-19.

Third: We must ensure that those who lost their livelihoods do not fall into poverty. One of the things that can be done to prevent this is the creation of an unemployment insurance system. Cong. Stella Quimbo’s Unemployment Insurance Bill gives a sketch of such a system: Provide even partial income for the newly unemployed, and extend counseling, re-training and job matching for them.

Fourth, empower businesses to shift their products, services, or business models towards addressing needs brought about by the pandemic. Take the garment industry for example, which has been shifting its operations towards the production of PPEs. They have been asking for help because of criticisms from the government itself that their products do not meet medical standards. Instead of merely restricting and policing them, why not empower them so that their products reach these standards? Release step-by-step guidelines. Link them up with testing services so that they know the requirements their products are supposed to meet. It would be good if the government itself puts up the facilities where trained Filipinos can do testing themselves, rather than have our manufacturers rely on medical grade testing done abroad. Furthermore, they can also be lent capital to provide wages for more workers, and to purchase more raw material. If possible, connect them with those who can supply these raw materials at affordable prices. There are many small, local tailors who, if given a chance to participate, can contribute to the nationwide production of PPEs.

Fifth: There is a need for a large-scale program to help small and community-based businesses acquire an online presence. There are elements, such as setting up online digital payment systems, which may not be easy to follow for MSME’s. Along with this, the opening of bank accounts should be made easier, and assistance should be provided so as many people as possible sign up for digital modes of payment. If we can accomplish these things, we can maintain the flow of our economy while protecting buyers and consumers from the threat of COVID-19.

Sixth: Ensure support for MSME’s and other small business owners. The DTI itself has said that more than half of the nation’s MSME’s have stopped operating because of the pandemic. This equates to 2.6 million people who have lost their jobs. Aside from the unemployment insurance system I mentioned earlier, allocate funds for wage subsidies to MSMEs that can commit to keeping their employees employed. We should also strengthen LGUs so they can support small businesses—establish credit mitigation services, to guide them in finding loans, in creating business plans, and in managing their finances to prevent them from closing up shop.

Seventh, for OFWs. Thousands of them were forced to go home or are unable to return to their jobs because of the pandemic. We need to provide reintegration and livelihood programs for them, on top of coordinating with embassies abroad to help our countrymen get back to work.

Eighth, the next biggest enemy after disease: Hunger. We can prevent this by extending assistance to our most vulnerable countrymen. DSWD already has a list to identify them: Giving 5,000 pesos monthly for four months to the 10 million poorest families sums up to 200 billion pesos—a small amount to save our fellow Filipinos from hunger. The national government has already distributed financial assistance twice, but many experts agree that we should allocate more funds to extend such an effort.

Ninth, still on hunger: Focus on strengthening sectors that help provide food on the table. Support farmers, fisherfolk, and livestock raisers; monitor the farm input supply chain; and fast-track the construction of necessary infrastructure that will help augment their incomes, such as farm-to-market roads and cold storage facilities. The latest data clearly shows that agriculture is the most resilient sector of our economy; it is only fitting that we channel more of our resources to support the agricultural sector, because we will need to rely on them as we build a better normal.

Tenth. The pandemic poses unique challenges, but it is also an opportunity to address the long-standing causes of our country’s economic problems—one of the most pressing of which is income inequality. It is high time that we match the wage of employees to their contribution to society, and ensure that they receive sufficient benefits, resources, and other kinds of support, especially amid the pandemic. This includes health workers who risk so much during these times, as well as teachers who stand as the last line of defense to ensure that the impact of COVID-19 will not cross over to the next generation. This is a crucial step to give them the confidence to face the challenges of today, and a sense of security for tomorrow.

Eleventh. Many of our recommendations require better digital infrastructure. This can be achieved if the government itself will put up shared cell sites in areas where there is weak or no signal at all. This is the way forward to a better normal—the wider the access to the internet, the more people can attend online classes or participate in the economy, and the more technology can become an efficient tool for nation-building.

Let me emphasize: Confidence keeps the economy rolling. And the truth is, even before the pandemic, our economy could not reach its full potential because of lack of confidence. Foreign direct investments had already plummeted before COVID-19 happened. Export growth has been slowing down for some time. The country has consistently missed economic growth targets that the government itself had set.

This is why, especially now that we are grappling with a pandemic, the last thing that we need is even more instances that erode confidence. How can confidence be built amid continued allegations of corruption—from overpriced PPEs and other assistance, to PhilHealth, an agency that is supposed to give us a sense of security in case we get sick. How can there be confidence when we are unsure of where funds are going? How can there be confidence when every time the leadership holds a press conference, clarity is in short supply? Clearly, the people are willing to man the oars; what we need is someone to point us towards the proper direction. Someone to steer the ship of state.

Many hold a sentiment that is not difficult to understand: It’s as if no one is at the helm, no direction, no clear horizon as to when and how this pandemic will be addressed. It’s as if we’ve been handed a bit of assistance, then left to fend for ourselves, locked in our homes, living in fear. As if we should shoulder the blame of infections and death, for being too undisciplined, as we have been called. As if we have nothing to expect from our leaders—or there are no leaders at all. As if we have been left to fend for ourselves.

These sentiments are not criticism: This is our reality. It is our right, our responsibility to expect and demand more from our leaders. But it has never been clearer than in the past five months—no one else will care for us but ourselves. It is this insight itself that has given me hope in these times: No one can match the Filipino when it comes to caring for their fellow Filipinos.

The times once again call us to action: Widen the reach of our empathy; direct all our actions towards our fellowmen. Take care of each other. Understand that ultimately, our destinies are intertwined. This can be done in many ways: Take care of your own health—because every person getting COVID-19 adds to the burden of the national healthcare system. Patronize local businesses, from online to those in our communities. Check on your neighbor; reach out to those who are in dire straits. To banks and landlords, be humane and compassionate to those who owe you debt. Volunteer, pour all energies back to the community, and as much as you can, make sure that no one starves in these times.

So many of us are already doing this, and if we can do this without someone at the helm, imagine what more we can do if someone were. In New Zealand and Vietnam, many days went by before a new case of COVID-19 emerged. Upon finding out, they moved quickly, with all hands on deck, to stop the spread of the virus. South Korea showed this same sense of urgency when new cases spiked in their country. Last August 8, Taiwan held their first concert in a time of COVID-19; more than 10,000 were in attendance. They were allowed to do this this because they were in control of the pandemic: Because they had a clear plan, effective policies based on science, and were quick in their response—borne of deep trust in their leadership and in each other.

We can also do this; we should be able to do this; we have a long history of emerging triumphant over challenges like this. We may, at times, forget who we really are. Today, I affirm as we are reminded by our struggles, who the Filipino really is: Strong of spirit and open-hearted. Ingenious. Always ready to lend a hand, especially in times of need.

And if no one will lead us, we will do this ourselves; we will step up to the plate, we will help each other, carry one another. We ourselves will face this challenge, lead the charge; we will take it upon ourselves to do what needs to be done to overcome any obstacle, in the name of our fellowmen. We will look this crisis in the eye and affirm with conviction: You may bring us to our knees, but nothing can ever stop us—we will rise, again and again and our heads held high. We are Filipinos. We are stronger than any struggle before us.

I believe in this with my whole heart: With faith, with conviction, and most of all, in solidarity, we will overcome this crisis.

My faith remains strong: We can do this.

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