Relishing our victories against COVID

I read with great interest a Pulse Asia survey released this week. It showed that the top concerns of Filipinos at the moment are staying healthy and having a secure, well-paying job. This was followed closely by having enough food to eat and being able to provide schooling for their children.

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Hearing the sentiments of the average Filipino, I must say, brings a sense of validation to what we have been trying to do since the beginning of the pandemic. If I were to sum up what we have aimed for in the past 19 months, it was to save lives and livelihoods. In a country like the Philippines, the two are intimately linked. One needs to stay healthy in order to work. Beyond that are other needs that can be summed up in one word: Hope. One must also have something to live for.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen my role evolve from helping small entrepreneurs to helping the private sector open up the economy safely. While my role as an adviser to the government is not a Cabinet position, but purely a voluntary one, and while I receive no compensation from the government, my job has given me something more valuable: access to other secretaries to collaborate with them in my pursuit of helping MSMEs in this time of pandemic.

I remember meeting with the President sometime in April 2020 and presented to him two things: That we be allowed to bring in rapid antibody test kits and the concept of granular lockdowns.

At that time, our RT-PCR capacity was still low at around 3,000 tests daily. Antigen tests had yet to be developed at that time and even PCR tests were scarce. You can’t fight what you can’t see, so we continued to push for visibility. Thanks to the efforts of FDA chief Eric Domingo, we were able to help those who wanted to bring in the tests. We have come a long way since. The private sector was able to donate RT-PCR equipment to government hospitals and to LGUs, antibody test kits, and funding for pooled testing. Today, the government has an arsenal of different testing methods. Even the rapid antibody test is still being used to monitor post-infections and was also used in the last SONA.

I am glad to see that my recommendation on granular lockdowns has also been adopted after overcoming the initial hesitation from the President’s advisers at the time. We saw granular lockdowns as a way of controlling the spread of the virus without crippling an entire area. Last July, we proposed a stricter two-week lockdown so as to prevent possible surges that may limit the economy’s reopening in the fourth quarter. Today, after the first week of October, we are seeing a downward trend in cases.

But our biggest accomplishment so far is A Dose of Hope, the tripartite agreement between the government, the private sector, and the vaccine manufacturers. It was the first of its kind: it allowed the private sector to provide vaccines for their workers, and it also allowed them to help the country by sharing their procured vaccines with LGUs.

Which brings me to my next point: giving the private sector some degree of agency in determining their future.

For businessmen, and especially MSMEs, foresight is very important in identifying opportunities and anticipating possible challenges. We recently called for a more scientific – and thus transparent – way of classifying alert levels, especially in the NCR. I am glad to report that the Department of Health is working to adopt suggestions from Go Negosyo and OCTA Research. With these efforts, we hope to see lower alert levels in the fourth quarter, when consumer spending will be needed to buoy the economy.

As vaccination rates rise, we continue to push for more mobility for the fully vaccinated, especially for high-risk businesses like gyms, personal care services, and restaurants. We achieved a minor win in getting an additional 10 percent capacity for them, and are now trying to find a way for cinemas to reopen, especially considering they were used as vaccination and registration sites anyway (and have so far been proven to be safe sites for controlled crowds).

Our bakuna bubble model is gaining traction, and I am glad that its salient points are being implemented. An important part of the bakuna bubble strategy is safe public transportation. We partnered with the Department of Transportation to inoculate drivers using some of the private sector-procured vaccines under the TSUPERHERO program so that we can move more people as the economy reopens even further.

Now we are moving to help the airline and travel industry, no doubt the worst hit by the pandemic. We are pushing for shorter (seven days, but preferably five days) quarantine for international travelers who are fully vaccinated, and the scrapping of RT-PCR tests (or at the most, an antigen test only) of fully vaccinated tourists visiting local destinations. Recently we are seeing destinations like Coron, Bacolod, and Cebu welcoming fully vaccinated tourists.

We now have enough data to support our initiatives. Where before they were perhaps subject to debate, there is no disputing now that protecting the unvaccinated and granting more mobility to the fully vaccinated will be key in winning the war against COVID. This much we have maintained from the beginning.

The fourth quarter has become more meaningful to me this year. Not only because Go Negosyo’s anniversary is in November, but because this could be a turning point for many businesses.

I feel the frustration of many entrepreneurs. How can you pay back loans, suppliers, and even the government when you cannot even open your business? What do you say to someone who has pledged their homes and assets to get the capital needed to make up for the absent cash flow? We are crossing our fingers that the Christmas spending, and soon, election spending, will do the trick.



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