Third of four parts

For the Duterte administration, the Philippines has turned a corner with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic given rising vaccinations and a "measured" reopening of the domestic economy.

The measures and reforms adopted in the last five years met expectations, Cabinet officials claimed, with promises made by President Rodrigo Duterte since he took office in 2016 also kept.

Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar told The Manila Times these reforms, which the administration owes in large part to legislators who saw the need for timely approval, enabled a decisive response to the pandemic.

"The performance of the Duterte administration exceeds expectations and continues to do well," he claimed.

"Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been making achievements in generating positive, meaningful and sustainable changes for all Filipinos through our social services and reforms. These include the Universal Health Care Law, Free Tertiary Education Law and the Philippine Identification System Act, among others," Andanar added.

"It is to be noted our unemployment and poverty rates have had a downward trend annually, breaking all-time records before Covid-19 just as the Duterte administration envisioned."

Given the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, Andanar said the Duterte administration was continuing to work "towards balancing the safety and welfare of every Filipino while relaxing the quarantine restrictions and opening more industries."

"As we see more economic activities ahead, we expect it to lead to a stronger economic recovery before the end of the year, especially since the government has begun rolling out the national vaccination program against Covid-19," he added.

"Despite the pandemic, we continue to strive to deliver our promise to the Filipinos of a safe and comfortable life," he continued, noting unemployment went down to 7.1 percent in March 2021 and 11.5 million jobs had been generated as of the same month, offsetting the 8.7 million jobs lost in the March to May 2020 period.

"Even amidst the negative impacts of Covid-19, The Economist ranked the Philippines sixth out of 66 selected emerging economies in terms of fiscal strength. This figure is expected to rise as we look forward to a new normal in most public and private operations," Andanar said.

Botswana, Taiwan, South Korea, Peru and Russia were the only emerging economies that ranked better in the magazine's April 2020 report, which subsequently had Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Benjamin Diokno declaring the Philippines had been hit by the pandemic "from a position of strength."

'Continued collective improvement'

The country's growth prospects, Andanar said, will depend on three factors: the safe reopening of the economy, full implementation of the government's recovery package and acceleration of the vaccination program.

"Our economic managers are working towards the relaxation of quarantine restrictions while adhering to the minimum health standards, as this will allow millions to regain employment," he added.

Fiscal responses already implemented include the Bayanihan 2 Act, 2020 and 2021 General Appropriations Acts (GAA) and the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act, he continued.

"We are also urging Congress to fast track the Government Financial Institutions Unified Initiatives to Distressed Enterprises for Economic Recovery or the Guide bill," he said.

The government has been aggressive in ensuring the country gets a stable supply of vaccines, Andanar claimed.

Amid criticism that the government was not moving fast enough to secure adequate vaccine supplies, he insisted: "We have been continuously working to provide the country with actions and programs that will give the best results. We want to provide Filipinos with a legacy of a more comfortable and secure life, a legacy that will benefit people even after the term of President Rodrigo Duterte."

Duterte, who will step down at the end of June next year, wants a legacy of having delivered "peace and order, infrastructure and development and poverty alleviation," he added.

"We aim to reduce the supply, demand and the negative effects of drug abuse in the country. The government, particularly the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, has established 965 Balay Silangan Reformation Centers and 15 treatment and rehabilitation centers," Andanar pointed out.

Under the centerpiece Build Build Build (BBB) program, meanwhile, he said the national government had improved and was continuing to work on key infrastructure - bridges, roads, railways, airports, etc. - while also developing new and better cities. The BBB program, Andanar claimed, had generated 4,199,288 jobs and helped reduce unemployment to 4.5 percent, the lowest since 2005.

(It should be noted that the 4.5 percent was hit in October 2019. As the pandemic raged, the jobless rate surged to a record 17.7 percent in April 2020 but has since tapered to 7.7 percent as of May this year.)

"These are programs that should continue well beyond this administration's term, all for the continued collective improvement of our nation and of every Filipino and their families, both here and abroad," Andanar said.

'Ingat buhay para sa hanapbuhay'

Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr. reaffirmed the government's commitment to reduce poverty by the end of Duterte's term. As the economy continues to be reopened, the government will intensify enforcement of its Prevent-Detect-Isolate-Treat-Reintegrate strategies, he said.

"Ingat buhay para sa hanapbuhay (protect life for livelihood) remains our battle cry. Having said this, our economic managers noted in a joint official statement the labor market continued to see gains following the further reopening of the economy in March this year," he told The Times.

"When the government imposed enhanced community quarantine in the NCR (National Capital Region) Plus bubble in April 2021, our economic managers readily carried out a supplemental social amelioration program amounting to P22.9 billion for 22.9 million individuals to help low-income families cope with the situation," he declared.

With just under a year left to the President's term, Roque said the economy's reopening and the fast-tracking of vaccination of all "is the most important goal right now."

"To achieve this goal, one of the concrete actions of the government is the formulation of Recharge PH program led by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) which seeks to refocus, sharpen the design and accelerate the implementation of programs under the 2020 GAA to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Recharge PH is being implemented within 2020 and into 2021 and will be incorporated in the Updated Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022," he said.

"Likewise, as part of the mass vaccination program, the government has been working hard to increase the vaccine confidence of Filipinos through continuously gathering and acquiring efficient vaccine supply and giving vaccine priority to our health care workers and economic frontliners."

While the pandemic's impact "may remain in the short-term, we are optimistic the economy will return to its upward growth trajectory starting this year."

The Philippines has enjoyed above 6.0 percent gross domestic product growth since 2011, but expansion began easing in the first full year under the Duterte government. The above 6.0 percent run was snapped last year when the impact of Covid-19 led to a 9.6-percent plunge, the worst on record.

A reversal, said Roque, "can be achieved through the accelerated implementation of the country's recovery package and rollout of the national vaccination deployment to cover a broader segment of the population."

"We will continue to manage risks and push for the gradual and safe reopening of the economy after addressing the present spike so people can return to work and the government can address hunger and poverty while maintaining the strict compliance to minimum public health standards."

Addressing hunger

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Alexei Nograles, head of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Zero Hunger (TFZH), stressed the need to focus on long-term plans to address hunger.

"Prior to the pandemic, it was clear the government under President Duterte had made headway into reducing poverty, increasing incomes and generating jobs," he told The Times.

Citing NEDA data, Nograles said salaries and wages had gone up by 22.8 percent to P156,114 in 2018 from P127,122 in 2015.

"For those in the lowest 30 percent of the population, mean per capita income increased by 31.87 percent. Inflation at the end of 2019 was at 1.3 percent, well within our target of two percent to four percent," he added.

(The December 2019 result was actually 2.5 percent, which led to a full-year average of also 2.5 percent. The 1.3 percent was recorded in November that year.)

As far as job generation was concerned, Nograles said the country's unemployment and underemployment figures had also improved under Duterte's watch. The administration, he claimed, succeeded in producing 1.3 million new jobs and 2.3 million fewer unemployed Filipinos.

"We were on track to keep unemployment within the 4.7 percent to 5.3 percent range, consistent with the 2017-2022 Philippine Development Plan and these were clear indicators government programs targeting the poor were hitting their mark," he added.

Nograles said groundwork was already being laid via the launch of the National Food Policy (NFP), "a long-term roadmap to reduce and ultimately eradicate hunger in the country."

Crafted in October last year, the NFP aims to strengthen government agencies - both at the national and regional levels - and local government units in order for them to provide the necessary programs and interventions to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and attain sustainable agriculture.

Aside from NFP launch, Nograles said the TFZH had worked on the following to combat hunger: creation of the Enhanced Partnership Against Hunger and Poverty; institutionalization of the Zero Hunger Programs Guidelines; staging of the Kasapatan at Ugnayan ng Mamayan sa Akmang Pagkain at Nutrisyon Webinar Series; implementation of the Feeding Programs Initiative for the First 1,000 Days of Life; and launching of Pilipinas Kontra Gutom, a multi-sectoral effort to address the elements of hunger.

With less than a year to go, he said the Duterte government was "focused on these programs so we can help reduce hunger." He raised hope that the next administration "will appreciate the gains we have made and continue these programs."

"The pandemic has only served to highlight how hunger is an urgent concern –– and it will continue to be so as we work to revitalize the economy. Kailangan natin magtulungan para tugunan ito (We need to work together to address this)," he said.

The Cabinet official expressed confidence further easing of quarantine restrictions would give more Filipinos opportunities to return to work.

"The pandemic, of course, altered the trajectory of our economy as it did for the entire world. As long as we have not reopened our economy 100 percent and as long as other nations struggle with their own economies, it will be challenging to regain the momentum we had during the first three years of the President's term," Nograles noted.

"For our economy to bounce back and recover, the government's focus is twofold: step up our vaccination program and safely reopen the economy. We need to do these parallel efforts because our people need jobs and sources of income. As the economy reopens, our economic managers believe we will make inroads in addressing unemployment and subsequently, poverty, as the reduction of the former will naturally lead to a reduction of the latter."

Social protection programs

Social Welfare Secretary Rolando Joselito Bautista, meanwhile, said his department had ramped up programs to help minimize poverty and hunger.

The long-term poverty reduction initiative known as the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) was supporting 4.2 million family beneficiaries while the Supplementary Feeding Program was nourishing some 1.0 million child beneficiaries, he pointed out.

Under the Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situation program, meanwhile, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) extended medical, burial, food and transportation assistance to 1.7 million families.

Bautista also cited that over 3.7 million indigent senior citizens received social pensions while unconditional cash transfers provided top-up aid to 4Ps beneficiaries, senior citizens and poor families identified via the Listahanan program.

An emergency subsidy program under the Bayanihan 1 or "Bayanihan to Heal as One Act" and Bayanihan 2 or "Bayanihan to Recover as One Act" provided cash to over 18 million households.

"These laws provided the social safety nets and economic measures needed to support the most vulnerable during the pandemic," Bautista said.

"On the part of the DSWD, we commit to continue implementing the various programs and services aimed at alleviating poverty," he added.

The Social Welfare chief gave assurances his department will continue to implement the 4Ps, which was "envisioned to halt intergenerational poverty with the implementation of RA (Republic Act) 11310 (the law creating 4Ps) in 2019."

He said the DSWD will also contribute to the "Balik Probinsya Bagong Pag-asa" program, which aims to entice Metro Manila residents to return to their home provinces in a bid to spur wider economic development.

"In addition, our support to the mental health and psychosocial services remains an integral part of our overall mandate," Bautista added.

"Meanwhile, under the Zero Hunger Policy, we will sustain the technical guidance in the Enhanced Partnership Against Hunger and Poverty, where government institutions converged in support of the government's efforts to reduce [the] incidence of hunger and poverty in the country."