IN a recent editorial, we urged the national government, represented by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), to be more flexible in working with local government units (LGUs), whose leaders have developed practical and innovative ideas to manage their peoples’ needs during the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine. That is still our view in spite of President Rodrigo Duterte’s admonishment — which, in fact, seemed to contradict his earlier call to LGUs to “do whatever they could” to help the anti-coronavirus campaign, for local leaders not to stray from the guidelines handed down by the IATF-EID.
But recent events have clearly demonstrated that the relationship between the national government and the LGUs is very much a two-way street, particularly now amid one of the biggest crises the nation has faced since World War 2. A great many local government officials have been “taking matters into their own hands” too far, whether out of misplaced zeal, misunderstanding of government policies and rules, or, perhaps in some cases, more questionable motives. In almost every case, these local policies are imposed to the detriment of the people they are intended to serve and the entire national effort to stop the coronavirus pandemic.
Stories shared by the public range from the merely dubious to the downright alarming. In one city, bags of relief goods containing common food items costing a total of about P300 at retail were allegedly charged to the city budget at P2,500; embittered citizens openly questioned whether the nearly P2,000 difference was the cost of printing the ecobags with the mayor’s picture and campaign slogan. There have also been numerous stories of abusive arrest and detention practices directed at violators of local curfews by overzealous barangay (village) officials. Abuses of the suddenly ubiquitous quarantine passes, a potentially useful idea but one that is not provided for by law or IATF-EID directives, also seem to be widespread, including charging residents fees to obtain one in order to be able to purchase necessities.
Most alarming, there have been reports of deliveries of vital food and supply shipments being delayed or prevented from passing local checkpoints in spite of government directions to let important cargos travel freely. If not corrected, these unnecessary bottlenecks could cause shortages in many areas, particularly around Metro Manila.
As we have previously said, the national government does not have a monopoly on the best policies and procedures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. It must view the ideas from LGUs with an open mind and support those that are truly effective. By the same token, the national government, having done that, absolutely should expect that LGUs will cooperate fully with its efforts and comply with the directives of the IATF-EID and other concerned agencies. After all, just as the national government does not have all the answers, no LGU can claim to fully understand the national-scale picture of the crisis and integrate that into its local policies.
The overall problem suggests there is a serious lack of coordination between the national and LGU levels: the current arrangement at the national level, where LGU matters are represented by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), are evidently insufficient. The IATF-EID should include direct representation of LGUs at the provincial, city/municipality and barangay levels. These representatives could come from the League of Cities of the Philippines, the League of Municipalities of the Philippines, the League of Provinces of the Philippines and the League of Barangay in the Philippines. LGUs would very likely be more inclined to cooperate with and faithfully implement directives from the IATF-EID if they knew their concerns, and not just the DILG’s interpretation of them, were considered in government policies.
Another problem the national government should strive to solve is the apparent ambiguity of many of the directives that have been issued. Many of the complaints about LGU actions appear on closer examination to be the result of interpretation more than any willful intent on the part of local leaders. Details matter in any circumstances; in our current crisis, details in rules could mean the difference between life and death. They should be given due attention.