NOT being from this part of the world — I know that comes as a surprise to some people — I still think in terms of “seasons,” so it was with a bit of wistfulness that I noted the passing of summer earlier this week. Thanks to this damnable coronavirus, we have now essentially lost two seasons of this year, and by the middle of this week, we can formally write off the year’s third economic quarter, as well.
Having experienced six months of this continuous mild nightmare and with no end in sight,
I think the overwhelming feeling among both the public and its leadership is one of weariness. It is difficult to sustain an effort for that long under most circumstances, and even harder when there is no end in sight. With other kinds of calamities, there always is; the typhoon will leave, the earth will stop shaking, the volcano will cease blowing up, floods will recede. With the coronavirus, however, that certainty is missing. For all we know, our current unsatisfying and moderately fearful existence may be a way of life from now on.
And we’re sick of it, frankly. We can see that frustration manifested in the increasing pessimism of the country. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ (BSP) periodic business and consumer confidence surveys, released earlier in the week, showed that both are deeply pessimistic about the near future, consumers more so than businesses. A different survey published during the week revealed that at least 60 percent of Filipinos believe the country’s economic recovery “will take a long time.”
We can see the frustration manifested in the increasing rancor of public discussion. Criticism of the government and those who support it has devolved from its normal harshness into savagery; the defenders of the government have responded in kind, and then some.
We can also see the frustration manifested in the sometimes ludicrous, sometimes pathetic attempts of the public, business sector and overnment to force the situation back to “normal” through sheer stubborn wishful thinking, which has resulted in some problematic suggestions and developments. For example, “business groups” — which is actually the Steam ID of Presidential Adviser on Entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion — this week again called for “reopening the economy” despite there being absolutely no indication at this point that the coronavirus pandemic is waning at all. The recommendations made this time include allowing jeepneys to operate and increasing public transportation capacity to 80 percent; and, incredibly, to ignore the epidemic of online fraud that has exploded during the long months of quarantine by “suspending” the Data Privacy Act, which will somehow help with contact tracing.
That online fraud has become such a pervasive problem actually speaks volumes for the ingenuity of the criminal mind, because the rest of us are finding it difficult to accomplish anything at all, given the absolutely unusable state of the country’s internet infrastructure. In an editorial several weeks ago, this paper suggested that because of how critical digital connectivity has become — the public health monitoring and reporting system relies on it, much of the economy, such as it is, is now being driven by online work and commerce, as is almost the entire education system — the government should treat it with the same level of urgency as the pandemic itself. A number of other media outlets and analysts within and outside the government have also offered similar views.
As a signal of its proud lack of awareness and understanding of this most obvious and costly of crises facing the nation, the government responded to growing calls to “do something” about the sorry state of digital connectivity by trotting out the unqualified anachronism who leads the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) to tell a congressional budget hearing that the Philippines having internet speeds slower than powerhouse countries like Iraq and Laos is “not that bad.”
Here’s a little insight for DICT head Gringo Honasan: Apart from the growing number of complaints being shared by the public online — when they can get online, that is — staffers at a major international institution headquartered in Manila, to which the Philippine government happens to be indebted to the tune of several billion dollars, erupted in fury this week when poor connectivity, both for staffers trying to work from home and at its extremely well-equipped headquarters building, seriously hampered the completion of a time-dependent, multimillion dollar agreement with another global institution located overseas. Connectivity problems have gotten so severe that for video conferences — which happen several times a day, due to the nature of their work — some staffers have reportedly had to resort to having their headquarters connect them on a voice-only basis through the regular phone switchboard.
No, it is not “not that bad,” Mr. Secretary of the DICT, and if something isn’t done about it immediately, the worse-than-third-world state of the Philippines’ network will completely scuttle any hope your smarter colleagues have of carrying out their strategies for economic recovery. Why the government has for years had such a blind spot to this basic infrastructure requirement — particularly the current administration, for whom “infrastructure” is practically a holy incantation — has been, and remains, an infuriating mystery.