From Rome where he now serves as the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle has offered wise counsel to nations around the world amid the deadly COVID-19 outbreak.
In his homily during Mass streamed online on March 29, Cardinal Tagle called on the first world countries to forgive or condone the debts of poor nations “so that they could use their dwindling resources” on pressing needs, such as health, education and food.
The lack of resources, he emphasized, could be among the “tombs” of the poor countries today.
At the same time, the prelate said nations should think twice about spending more for the military than for social needs.
“Now we realize that we don’t have enough (face) masks but there are more than enough bullets …. We don’t have enough supplies of ventilators but we have millions of pesos, dollars or euros spent on one plane that could attack people,” he pointed out.
“Could we stop wars, please? Could we stop producing weapons, please? Could we get out of the tomb and spend the money for real security?” he pleaded.
While Cardinal Tagle’s words were directed towards the global community as a whole, I could not help but think that he was also talking about the situation in his own country.
The Philippines accumulated billions of dollars in foreign and domestic debt during the 21-year Marcos regime from 1965 to 1986.
While part of the money went to vital infrastructure projects, it is widely believed that most of it ended up in secret Swiss bank accounts of the first family and in the pockets of the strongman’s cronies, thus leaving millions of Filipinos mired in crushing poverty.
Filipino taxpayers today are still paying for the debts accumulated by the Marcos regime during its heyday.
A part of the Philippine foreign debt during those years was condoned by foreign creditors, including the United States and members of the European Union, after the People Power uprising that restored Philippine democracy in 1986.
Civil society groups also managed to enter into debt swap arrangements with foreign creditors that led to a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) obtaining funds for various programs and projects for integrated rural development, livelihood generation and environmental protection, among others.
With the current administration’s habit of borrowing left and right to fund an ambitious “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, plus its attention focused on tapping foreign funds to finance an equally ambitious military modernization program, Cardinal Tagle’s warning that real security does not come from spending a gargantuan amount for the military at the expense of social amelioration and anti-poverty programs is timely indeed.
The Philippines actually now faces the grim prospect of a serious economic downturn in the months and possibly years ahead due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Will we able to service our foreign debt without skimping on social services, such as education and health, particularly for sectors that need help the most, such as labor, farmers, fisherfolk and indigenous peoples?
We’re now seeing the folly of the health sector in the Philippines not getting the priority it deserves in the national budget for this year. I understand that our legislature slashed the budget of the Department of Health for this year to accommodate requests for pork barrel allocations for pet projects of lawmakers for their constituencies.
Not surprisingly, our health department is now hard-pressed in coping with the gargantuan financial and logistical requirements of a major public health emergency from COVID-19. Of late, it has had to plead for donations of face masks, personal protective equipment and isolation facilities for severe cases and called on volunteer doctors, nurses, medical technologists and other health personnel to help it address the crisis.
Cardinal Tagle is correct: We must get our priorities right, or else end up with an even darker future for all of humanity than what we have now with no clear solution to the COVID-19 crisis yet in sight.
Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.