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My father, Joecon, was a crusader during the Martial Law years. He was inspired by his own father-in-law, Salvador Araneta, and by former Senator Ninoy Aquino.
He believed that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. This belief led him to establish NAMFREL or the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections, an organization whose goal is to ensure free and honest elections. NAMFREL inspired many citizens to volunteer as poll watchers instead of staging protests. Their collective efforts made it possible to have an election Quick Count during the 1986 snap presidential elections, leading eventually to the peaceful restoration of democracy.
For the past 18 months, I have found myself in a similar situation as my father. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought despair and a sense of helplessness among our entrepreneurs and made it very difficult for them to stay afloat. While most are still struggling, there are those who had no choice but to close their doors.
I serve as an adviser to the President, and through my role, we try and help our micro, small, and medium entrepreneurs. When before I made it my mission to help them thrive, I now find myself looking for ways to help them survive. The pandemic has also thrust me into another territory: bringing the private and public sector to work as one to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic.
I believe that teamwork is key to winning this unfamiliar war. So we set our first goal to bring in vaccines for the private sector employees to complement national government efforts in a first-of-its-kind collaboration, a tripartite agreement between vaccine manufacturers, the government, and the private sector.
When the vaccination numbers started to increase, we recommended to re-open the economy and give the vaccinated more mobility. We believe then, as now, that fully-vaccinated individuals can provide much-needed support for businesses to keep them open and do it safely, and not end up in hospital. We also knew that we had to make sure that entire families and offices were vaccinated, and that testing and other health and safety protocols continue to stay in place.
We were already gaining momentum when the Delta variant changed the game. We now face one of the worst waves of the infection and the death toll is starting to rise again. It is apparent that, with the virus continuing to mutate, we must learn how to live with COVID-19. We do not know when this will end, but our lives need to go on.
Now my task has shifted, and it is to find ways to coexist with the virus because the government cannot afford to shut down the economy any longer. To my mind, the granular approach to lockdowns is the answer. I recommended this last June 2020 during my meeting with the President.
Granular lockdowns contain the spread only in affected areas, allowing other parts of the city to remain open and functional. The focus can be streamlined to the area of concern, and with this approach, mayors and barangay captains can employ specialized strategies within their own communities.
All the while, I was parrying accusations that giving more mobility to fully vaccinated individuals is discriminatory. How can protecting lives and helping our economy bounce back be called discriminatory? How is an individual’s personal (and for many, temporary) state greater than the common good? Based on reports from public and private hospitals, unvaccinated individuals account for 70 to 80 percent of hospital occupancy. If we drop all restrictions, even non-COVID patients will be deprived of emergency care.
We can only slowly get back to our usual lives if more are protected against COVID. Right now, only vaccines offer that protection.
Recently, we scored minor wins. When the national government introduced the alert levels, there were incentives given to fully-vaccinated individuals, the very same thing we have been pushing for. It is not much, as 10 percent only are allowed, but it is a start. However, this will not bring in money needed to recover, so we are still hopeful that this will increase to as much as 50 percent in the last quarter. We are also hopeful that high-risk business establishments like gyms will be allowed to open eventually.
Once again, my work has shifted: Helping our entrepreneurs thrive in the new normal. In Go Negosyo, we have accelerated our mentoring program, teaching entrepreneurs how to deal with the crisis and adopt digital technology and tools in their businesses. E-wallets like GCash, PayMaya, and others were introduced to our community of mentees, allowing them to make and accept payments through digital wallets. These digital platforms helped widen their reach, while social media gave their brands more visibility. Our mentoring program also shifted online as we ourselves learned to adapt.
As I began this column on a personal note, let me also end on something closer to home. Everyone at this point has had close friends and family become infected. My entire household is vaccinated, but recently some of our househelp tested positive, but only with mild symptoms. Our lesson from this experience: 1) We have to take extra efforts to keep our family bubble intact. 2) Encourage all members of the family to get vaccinated, and the next goal should be for all families in all communities all over the country. And 3) Vaccines still provide a layer of protection against the virus. It may not be as much protection as against the original variant, but it still prevents severe cases and hospitalization.
With Christmas fast approaching, we all want something to look forward to. We want to spend it with family, we want to have assurances that next year will be better, we want our loved ones to be safe. My father said it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Get yourselves and others vaccinated. Mask up, keep your distance, and wash your hands.
Light this candle for Christmas so we will not have to spend it in the darkness.