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FULL TEXT: Vice President Leni Robredo’s Report, Suggestions And Message Of Hope Amid The Pandemic

FULL TEXT: Vice President Leni Robredo’s Report, Suggestions And Message Of Hope Amid The Pandemic
The Philippine STAR file photo

At this point, for nearly the entire past month, more than a thousand people have been added daily to the list of COVID positive cases in the country. Almost two thousand have died, on top of the countless others who had to be hospitalized, clean out their savings, lose their jobs, or experience suffering and anxiety in these times. It has been more than five months since the first COVID-19 case in the country was reported.

For much of this time, the Office of the Vice President did what it could to respond and help in any way possible, despite its limited budget and resources.

I face you now to report what we have learned during this time: The feedback from experts, from doctors, from the most affected—the clamor of the people in our communities, of frontliners, of those who have little choice but to face danger because they need to get to work, of drivers, of locally-stranded individuals forced to sleep on stairs and sidewalks.

In the face of such a huge crisis, the erosion of government institutions will only yield greater danger. May this statement be treated as our further contribution—recommendations and lessons learned from almost five months of engaging with our countrymen in the fight against COVID-19.

Merely waiting for the arrival of a vaccine will not stop the pandemic. Its spread must be stemmed in the soonest possible time. Everything begins with correct data, which is the foundation of correct decisions. From there, we can identify whom and which areas to focus on as regards mass testing, contact tracing, and community and hospital support. If the healthcare aspect is properly addressed, community transmission will be controlled; the economy can be opened in a manner that is quick, safe, and strategic; job loss can be avoided; and fewer people will have to suffer. Anxieties brought about by businesses closing down will be stemmed; they will not anymore have to reach the point when they have to lay off employees, or worse, fold up.

Those are the broad strokes of a plan. I have no doubt that the government is aware of this. But the crisis is immense, and much needs to be done, so we all need to be agile as we identify gaps, and quick and creative in filling these. Here are a few recommendations:

First, clean up and accelerate data gathering as regards COVID-19. If this can be done, decisions, policies, and programs to stop the spread of the virus will be founded on more solid ground.

Experts have come up with various platforms that can serve as data repositories. What needs to be done is to choose the best among these, and to create a response ecosystem where centralized data is a standard.

Moreover: Inputting wrong and unintelligible data slows down the validation process; the decision-making process thus slows down, too. For example: A discrepancy between positive and confirmed cases can be seen in the available data. More than 113,000 cases have tested positive, while only around 80,000 of these are confirmed. This means that the verification process needs to catch up, because the official data has yet to reflect many of the positives.

A communication campaign is urgently needed so that the patients themselves can ensure that the right information about them is being cataloged. The government capacity to quickly disseminate information is formidable, so I am confident that his can be accomplished at the soonest possible time.

Second, we must involve our universities and the academe to strengthen the validation process of the Department of Health (DOH). Many want to help, but significant gaps in the volunteer management process need to be addressed. List down and organize all volunteers and get an accurate picture of their talents and skills and where they can best be used. Link them up with the units and offices that need them the most so that their contributions yield the best results.

There are many ways to do this. For example, they can look into surveillance and pooled testing. People will be grouped together and these groups can be tested. If the results of a group are negative, then those who belong to them would not need to be tested individually. In this way, more can be tested while saving on testing kits.

Third, ensure the quick and reliable turnover time of COVID tests. If there are backlogs, we need to find out what causes them and which laboratories struggle the most, and help them eliminate their backlogs so that they can process tests reliably and on time. In this way, contact tracers will have an easier time locating and testing those who still need to be tested. We know that there are contact tracing models that work, such as the model used in Baguio. So that people and agencies don’t work in silos, a single platform and a single technology can be used. Local Government Units must be implored to use a single, effective standardized process. This ensures both efficiency and reliability.

Fourth, about our Locally Stranded Individuals (LSI’s). We have already recommended that they should be given free swab tests before travelling home to their provinces. We need a better way to organize and facilitate the treatment and travel of our LSI’s – so that they aren’t forced to sleep on concrete or under bridges because of the lack of a system. We cannot put them in harm’s way and subject them to the risks of exposure to COVID and potentially other diseases. We need spaces that ensure both their comfort and their safety. In addition to this, the capacity of our LGU’s to receive LSI’s must be strengthened. We need to ensure stable and livable forms of livelihood. We can look into cash-for-work programs specific to LSIs.

Fifth, I agree with a “whole of nation approach.” I hope we can accomplish this beyond mere positions, monickers, and titles of those in charge. A genuine whole of nation approach means effective management and moving in a single direction. What kind of management, and under whose direction? We need a public health professional who really understands the problem: The pandemic is at the root of all the challenges we face right now. If we stop the pandemic from spreading, then all the other problems can be tackled one at a time, and this includes the economy.

Sixth: Ensure that the public and private sectors march to a single beat. Aside from the data aspect, many seem to be moving disparately when it comes to relief and procurement. Avoiding this will result in a more agile overall response from all. A reasonable consensus emanating from a single strategy should be forged, and everyone should move, without hesitation and reluctance, to overcome their obstacles.

Seventh: Strengthening hospitals should be front and center in a healthcare system. We have to ensure that distribution of resources to hospitals is equitable and systematic, so that they can keep up with the demands of the pandemic. If we look at the national data, it may seem that the healthcare system is not yet overburdened. This is contrary to what the hospitals have been telling us. Many of them have been refusing patients due to the lack of space. It is only natural that we fix the system, so that we can give support to those who need it the most.

And eighth, for our healthcare workers: They are the ones who face the most danger, the foremost soldiers in the fight against COVID-19. It should be natural then that we give them full attention, and give them all the care, all the help, all the equipment and service that they might need. This includes providing counseling to healthcare workers who are in our COVID-19 wards. A system should also be in place to avoid burnout and ensure proper work shifts. We likewise agree that they receive fair compensation for their work, especially in these times.

It is clear: the pandemic is at the root of our problems; if we address this effectively, we address the other challenges that come with it as well. Conversely, as more people get sick because of COVID-19, so does the suffering of our people get prolonged. Many have died; they are not mere statistics. Each of them had a story, had a dream, has a family that mourns their loss. And as cases continue to rise, it becomes harder move forward towards a better normal-- more people will have to face poverty, less of us can contribute to nation-building, and the journey towards the fulfillment of our dreams becomes more uphill. Our destinies are ultimately intertwined.

Now, as we continue to work to stop the spread of the virus, we have to ensure that there are enough safety nets for those in need, while ensuring that people will no longer lose their jobs.

The first thing we can do is to enact a stimulus package as soon as possible. Government is proposing that we pass into law the CREATE Bill, which will allow companies to pay less taxes; this may entice investors to open up shop in the country. This is a valid goal, but it is not enough.

Economic experts have laid out a plan before Congress, in the form of the ARISE Bill. If this passes into law, additional funds can be ascertained for programs such as DOLE's wage subsidies and cash-for-work through TUPAD. It is clear that ARISE is more focused on those who are most in need; it is more inclusive and more pro-poor. May the majority bloc in Congress use their powers to enact this into law in the soonest possible time.

Second: We can also give tax incentives to companies who provide assistance to those affected by the pandemic. This is an effective way to induce communal responsibility in the private sector.

Third: Wield the entire strength of the economic cluster, along with the academe and others from the private sector, not only to craft risk assessment studies, but to ensure that decisions are made from these studies. It will be such a waste if such knowledge goes unused. Once we have an understanding of where the risk is high, we must ensure that stricter regulations are enforced for these sectors, or maybe even suspend opening them up. From identifying low-risk industries, we can also identify the skills that employees who cannot work from home should learn. Upgrading their skills means they can find work easier in lower-risk industries.

Fourth: Create a buffer stock of basic commodities that families will need for the pandemic: Vitamins, washing soap, detergent, alcohol, face masks, among others. Ensure the supply chain and provide local companies with the necessary technology to produce more products and encourage our people to buy them.

Fifth: Direct the whole government – all units and agencies, from the top to the lowest level of the bureaucracy – to patronize local businesses. Let us support all locally-made products for the time being. As much as possible, priority should be given to Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises. This will ensure that the energies of the economy will flow steadily through local businesses and communities.

Sixth, on the Social Amelioration Program. When it was first launched, each city and municipality was given a number of slots in the program. Many of these local government units realized that the slots provided them were inadequate. We need to fix this system by updating government data, and creating a central database dedicated to poverty statistics. As of today, we have separate registries that account for basic sectors, poor families, and other targeted beneficiaries for social protection and social welfare services. We need to collate and validate these and compare them with existing data related to COVID-19, so we can determine whom SAP should prioritize. In this manner, we can avoid partiality, and prioritize those who are truly in need.

There are economic problems that should be faced with a longer-term perspective. Assistance should be provided to businesses that have closed down, and new ones should be encouraged to set up so that new jobs may be created. I am confident that our economic managers know the necessary steps to accomplish this task: Empower our MSMEs. Focus on key industries like agriculture. I agree with the Plant, Plant, Plant Program. But this is not enough. We need to channel more funds to the agricultural sector and acquire modern technology like cold storage and drying facilities. We need to invest in infrastructure such as farm-to-market roads. We can achieve more and reach out to wider communities if all our projects and efforts spring from our shared philosophy: Empowering every Filipino to shape his own fate. Most important of all, the fair implementation of the law must be ensured, without bias or prejudice to anyone, so that every ordinary Filipino can benefit from the jobs and livelihood that a level playing field creates.  

As it is with the economy and social welfare, the challenges in education will flow from an appropriate response to our healthcare problems. With proper data, we can identify, with confidence, where it may be already be safe to open public schools. For private schools: Now is not the time to burden them with unreasonable restrictions and requirements. What they need is help and empowerment—not stacks of papers just so they can proceed with their distance learning programs. Aside from this, we offer the following recommendations:

First, ensure that every barangay has an internet hub where students who do not have their own gadgets can access online resources. This is also where our learners can go for tutorial support, especially when their parents need to focus on their professions.

Second, identify students who are most in need of gadgets and devices to ensure that their education continues even in the midst of the pandemic.

Third, capacity building for teachers. Many of our teachers are subject matter experts, but they are having a difficult time catching up with the demands of distance learning. We need to support them and make the necessary trainings more accessible to them, so that the transition will not widen the learning gaps for students.

Fourth: Create modules that can aid parents on homeschooling. This includes the preparation of a weekly or monthly curriculum that will allow parents to teach their children from the comfort of their own homes.

Fifth: Conduct a study that identifies that do not have cases of community transmission. In these areas, especially those where internet access is a challenge, limited face-to-face classes may be allowed.

Sixth, for those who have lost their loved ones to COVID-19: Aside from the usual aid such as medical assistance and Social Amelioration Program, we need to empathize with the impact of their loss. Many have lost a breadwinner, and are struggling to make ends meet or are mired in debt. Neglecting those who are left behind means ensuring that the damage wrought by the pandemic will cross over to the next generation.

One way to approach this: Widen the scope of scholarship programs to cover those who were affected by COVID-19—those who were forced to spend all their savings and are burdened by debt because of hospital bills; those who have lost their source of livelihood. Award scholarships to those who have lost family members. Identify the dependents of the deceased, and start a scholarship fund for them.

We live in a time of great uncertainty. We see this in the faces of the people we engage in our COVID response efforts. This uncertainty binds all of us—just as we are bound by the resolve to overcome any challenge.

This pandemic has taught us: We are all intertwined. Our health and our safety are interconnected, and this is linked to every aspect of our lives, from economy to education and beyond. From center to periphery, from Batanes to Jolo, we are all threads that weave a single tapestry.

We are all on the same side, and accepting this is the key to facing the biggest challenge of our time. We see this spirit in countries that are doing so well in responding to this crisis. It is not wishful thinking to dream that we can also achieve what Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand have achieved—nations who crafted a clear and comprehensive plan, who channeled their resources to those who need them the most, who pulled together. We can also do this. We have the right skills, we should have sufficient resources. We have what it takes.

We are a creative people. We are a resourceful people. And throughout the countless trials we have faced— throughout all the disasters, the wars and dictatorship, the experience of colonization— one thing is certain: We came through because pulled together; because we extended the reach of our compassion; because we treated each Filipino like they were on our side; we fought for each other, and loved each other.

I have seen this firsthand from our many countrymen who came to our office to donate, to volunteer to bring PPEs and food to our frontliners, to contribute their time and their ability to help during this crisis. It is clear to me: Filipinos are not hardheaded; we are always ready and willing to help others. Filipinos are not worthless, we are strong and able to face any challenge. We will not be defeated. We will emerge victorious in this battle against the pandemic.

I say again now: We have risen to so many other challenges. And we will rise against this one.