A national unity government to combat COVID-19

Social distancing cannot be enforced coercively. It requires education and persuasion. It requires people to have trust and confidence in their government. It requires assurance that the government will take care of the people who follow its directives.

In short, social distancing can only succeed if there is social capital.

That is a big challenge for a society that is so unequal and one that is bitterly divided along partisan lines.

Prioritizing the poor

In a way, what is happening now in Metro Manila is neither a lockdown or a community quarantine but just an attempt to get the middle class and rich to distance themselves from each other and from the poor. For sure,  the rich and the middle class has heard enough, know what to do, and can fend for themselves. The rich and the middle class get it and can take care of themselves. We can telecommute, work and worship from home, teach and study online, and practice even enjoy social distancing. 

The  working and unemployed poor get it too but their options are not too many. They still have to work in sweatshops and other work places. They still have to commute in buses, habal-habal, and trains. They still have to go homes they share with 10-20 people in “loobans” with hundreds of shanties in the same 100-200 square meter area.

The government should focused all its attention and resources on the poor. By necessity and because of their circumstances,, the poor will not be able to do a lot of social distancing. Left to fend for themselves, the coronavirus will hit our most vulnerable people. Our less privileged neighbors will be ravaged by the virus, we won’t be spared too, not to mention that we have a responsibility to our fellow Filipinos.

The poor should be the priority of the government. Non-coercive interventions, in fact the establishment of support mechanisms, should be directed to help the poor cope with the economics of the community quarantine and to assist them in doing social distancing.

While I support the temporary closure of non-essential establishments – from malls to restaurants –  such closure must be accompanied by economic support measures for affected employees and small businesses. Among others, the proposal of Senator Risa to provide immediate relief to affected workers in the amount of 10,000 pesos is a good start even as this amount is clearly not enough as this lockdown is likely to continue for months.

Militaristic approach is wrong

This is why I have strong reservations about a militaristic approach to implement the community quarantine and the implementation of a curfew in Metro Manila cities. It will divert resources from the real challenge – helping the poor survive days, weeks, and months ahead.

The police and military can be better utilized as a complement to health care providers in implementing a multipronged surveillance strategy for enhanced case detection and reduced transmission of the corona virus. Together with health providers, the police and military can serve as a multiplier force by helping in the dissemination of relevant information about the Covid-19 especially in the vulnerable sectors like the depressed areas of Metro Manila, disinfection of places, distribution of relief goods to indigent families whose livelihoods may be disrupted by the pandemic. Incidentally, the poor will bear the brunt of the lockdown – the tricycle drivers, taxi drivers, ambulant vendors, daily wage earners and those similarly situated will suffer the most at this time.

The government must provide for the poor, otherwise, if they are neglected hunger and starvation will terrorize them more than the virus. In desperation, if they cannot feed their families, crime would become attractive.

The pandemic is primarily a public health emergency and not a security problem, therefore it is but logical that the police authorities, without neglecting their law enforcement duties, must take a more proactive role in helping out this public health emergency. 

A national unity government

COVID-19 presents our greatest challenge since World War II, when the Japanese invaded and occupied our islands and cities. The Philippine revolution of 1896, the Philippine-American War at the beginning of the 19th Century, declaration of martial law era in 1972, and the EDSA revolution of 1986 also presented many Filipinos, especially the youth, difficult choices. But World War II and now COVID-19 are different because there is no escape from them; one cannot choose to ignore them. It’s like Lawin, Yolanda, Sendong, Ondoy, Reming, Milenyo, and other disasters for those caught geographically in the middle of these events. But this one threatens all our islands and it is not a one-day event.

Unlike the Japanese occupation, this is not a war and cannot be fought with arms nor brute force. It has to be fought with science, discipline, cooperation, and national unity.

Unless we are united as a people, we will not defeat this enemy.

Except for the curfew, I am glad that the mayors of Metro Manila are totally engaged in this fight. I have been watching Mayors Joy Belmonte of Quezon City, Abby Binay of Makati, Vico Sotto of Pasig, Francis Zamora of San Juan, and Isko Moreno of Manila – and these young leaders give me confidence.

But there is much work to do at the national level so we can achieve unity.

Personally, I will support the Duterte government in its community quarantine strategy. As I have written in  this article, that strategy can succeed not through coercion or through a militaristic approach but by assisting the poor to achieve social distancing to protect themselves and cushioning the economic impact of the response to COVID-17.

I put my full support behind Health Secretary Francisco Duque and all our health workers. Secretary Duque, whom I know professionally, might have made mistakes early in this fight but he is still the best Filipino to lead us to victory against the coronavirus. His experience as Philhealth head, health secretary in the Arroyo and Duterte governments, and Chair of the Civil Service Commission will serve him and us well in addressing this complex challenge.

Recognizing the extraordinary circumstances we are facing, I call on President Duterte to take radical steps for national reconciliation – ordering the release of Senator Leila De Lima and other political prisoners aligned with the left, changing course in the war against drugs, and accelerating the peace process with the communists with whom an immediate ceasefire should be agreed with.

COVID-19 is an  existential threat to all of us. If we do not unite, many of us will die and there might be no country left to fight over. A national unity government gives us a fighting chance.

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