The year 2020 began and ended with the Philippines in dire straits, hemorrhaging from the drug war and brutal crackdown on communists. The string of economic flops, which the Asian Development Bank feared would further nosedive from its previous contraction forecast of 3.8% in June 2020 to 7.3% by year’s end, saw us desperately catching our breath.
The culprit, or so they claim: the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first half of 2020 landed the country a 9% contraction rate, compelling the ADB to foot the bill amounting to $2.3 billion in loans and grants to the Philippines, all in support of the government’s COVID-19 response.
Three months into lockdown, the country has received a total of P6.5 billion in foreign donations, according to the World Health Organization. This is outside the P275 billion government funds claimed by Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte to be within arm’s reach.
In a timeline prepared by CNN Philippines, as early as April last year, the Budget Department has allegedly been rolling out COVID-19 cash aid to the tune of hundreds of billions, including subsidies allegedly earmarked by government corporations for COVID.
The Asian Development Outlook 2020 Update, released in September last year, however, makes a bold estimate come 2021:
“The economy is expected to rebound in 2021 as the outbreak is contained, the economy is further opened, and more government stimulus measures are implemented. Downside risks next year include a slower than expected global recovery that could weigh heavily on trade, investment, and overseas Filipino worker remittances.”
It is nonetheless the opinion of ADB that economies including the Philippines could trip over its Legos should the pandemic prove difficult to contain. “The main risk stems from the prospect of a prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, which could derail the recovery,” it said.
And a prolonged pandemic, it seems, has turned up just around the corner as the new year arrived with news of a more transmissible variant. It was first discovered in the United Kingdom and had spread swiftly to Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, based on reports. Asia, Australia, the Middle East and South America weren’t spared.
Barely able to cope with the first variant, Hong Kong has soon detected the entry of the new variant into its borders through an allegedly infected overseas Filipino worker. The news surfaced this January in spite of continuing denials by Philippine health officials that the mutated virus has yet to reach Philippine shores.
Our government cannot say they’ve not been warned. But even as outrage after outrage resulted from the country’s mishandling of the pandemic, it remains a study in political foolhardiness why the Duterte administration chose to remain blasé to the socially, politically, and economically devastating effect of the pandemic.
A good example of this show of impertinence is the directive of House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco to continue deliberations on proposed amendments to the 1987 Constitution. Ako Bicol partylist Rep. Alfredo Gabin, as head the Committee on Constitutional Amendments in the Lower House, reports that House leaders met to resume discussion on Charter Change.
One report said, “Senators Francis Tolentino and Ronald Dela Rosa filed in December a resolution for both houses of Congress to convene as a Constituent Assembly to discuss limited amendments to the Constitution, specifically on provisions on democratic representation and economy.”
The report added that Articles II, XIV and XVI are provisions being targeted for amendments. These provisions restrict foreign ownership of land and businesses in the Philippines.
This includes the proposed “easing of restrictions […] on the ownership and management of mass media, public utility, educational institutions, investments and capital to foreign investors.”
In order for lawmakers to pull off the said amendments, Sen. Vicente Sotto explained that they would need a majority three-fourth vote to convene. Sen. Panfilo Lacson, on the other hand, cautioned everyone in both Houses to be extra careful in approaching any thought of amending the same. Sen. Franklin Drilon rams his foot down the measure and said, “It will not fly in the Senate”.
Where are we going with this? Why are we dragging our democracy—bruised and bludgeoned as it is—into a lion’s den of predatory profits matched only in viciousness by the corruption waiting in the sidelights?
Why are we turning our democratic ideals into a bureaucratic hellhole marked not only by the blood of the innocent, but a hankering for “progress” sullied by the appetites of the new kleptocracy—all in the name of the poor?
This push toward Charter Change via the wooing of foreign capital, and mind you, without restrictions, or less than the restrictions required, begs the question: what the hell do you think democracy is all about? Profit? And if profit, then for whom?
With the way the pandemic is wreaking havoc on every shore, to speak little of the new variant, a continuing financial response could bleed the coffers dry. But that’s not all of it.
If you recall, the Philippines dropped 14 notches in the 2019 Transparency International Corruption Index, from 99th in 2018 to 113 in 2019. This, more than ever, puts a major dent on whatever robust gains the Philippine economy had enjoyed in previous dispensations.
The World Financial Review estimates an economic loss of $10 billion annually due to corruption in the Philippines. Truth to tell, I find the figure a crumb too conservative. Why? Because this excludes further losses from illicit financial inflows and outflows, graft, continued drug trafficking to the tune of hundreds of billions of pesos, and additional billions in customs anomalies.
And what of the new “flavor of the year”—the smuggling of COVID-19 vaccines?
If at all true that a Charter Change would benefit the Filipino people economically, shouldn’t senators Dela Rosa and Tolentino, together with the House Speaker, train their crosshairs on this looming and extremely dark shadow?
In this neck of the pandemic where the poor suffers the economic equivalent of blunt force trauma due to government incompetence, corruption kills just as equally as a drug-war bullet.
All this push for “easy” wealth via the wooing of foreign capital has, for generations, dispossessed indigenous people from their ancestral lands, sunk whole towns and communities underwater for the sake of dams, caused indiscriminate environmental irregularities such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on account of mining, lured the middleclass into the grip of fool’s gold, caused the marginalization and massacre of our local farmers, the rape of our women and children, the continued crackdown on environmental activists, the spoilage of produce, the killing of members of the clergy who courageously spoke against degradation, to say nothing of sewage, the poisoning of our streams and soil, and the seamless ruin of our cities.
Add to this police and military forces moonlighting as security details for predatory foreign and domestic multi-corporations and what do we have?
The old, vicious rot garbed in classy Armani suits—all in the name of “progress” and “saving the poor”. And now our lawmakers are on the move to push restrictions out of the way?
The House debate will resume on Jan. 13. Ergo, we should lose no time putting a damper on any changes to the Charter—swiftly and decisively. Restrictions are there for a purpose: to keep political and economic predators from getting away with murder.
The rhetoric that the Constitution stands as inimical and hostile to progress doesn’t hold water. It’s the hydra of corruption and COVID, stupid.
Joel Pablo Salud is an editor, journalist and the author of several books of fiction and political nonfiction. 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.