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In a meeting I had early this week with the private sector and the experts from OCTA Research, it was clear that we still have work to do in encouraging people to come out and rejoin the economy.
One word kept coming up: confidence. It appears that some of our countrymen are still afraid they might catch COVID once they step out of their homes. I suppose two years of conditioning has done its work. Who can forget the horror stories of people dying in the hospital parking lot while waiting to be admitted. Or of perfectly healthy people dying within a few days of catching COVID. These stories are so visceral they stick with us longer than is healthy for us.
But now it’s been months – more than a year, actually – since the first COVID vaccine was administered in the Philippines. There are now almost 64 million Filipinos vaccinated, and many have acquired immunity through exposure. So why are some of our countrymen still behaving as if nothing’s moved forward?
OCTA Research shared that in one survey asking Filipinos what they thought were the effective methods of avoiding COVID, the number two answer was to “stay at home”. This might have been true back in April or May 2020, but it’s already March 2022! A lot of things have changed since then, and we now know more about COVID and, more importantly, we already have vaccines and antiviral drugs that can help, even if you do catch the disease.
Nevertheless, our friends from the private sector tell us that business has picked up, but not for all, unfortunately. Weekend sales are up, but weekday customers are still staying away. What this means is that families are going out, but we are still missing the office crowd, which is an important segment for many businesses. This just goes to prove that encouraging on-site work can do so much to return our economy to health.
Schools, however, will have the biggest beneficial effect, both on our economy and in inspiring confidence all around. Reopening schools will have a vast multiplier effect, not just in spurring economic activity, but in signaling to people that things are back to normal.
Then there’s the issue of masks. It’s a non-issue in the Philippines, thankfully. But while it has helped in reducing our cases of respiratory diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia in the last two years, facemasks communicate that something is not quite normal; their removal, therefore, will be an important signal. It has been proposed that we should make the removal of facemasks an incentive for when we’ve reached an acceptable level of vaccination. In which case, we achieve both a semblance of normalcy and a higher vaccination rate.
Of course, we still have to be careful. I understand that the speed at which we are opening up the economy is making some people very nervous. That’s why I believe the continuation of the campaign to vaccinate and booster is important. Once we reinforce the message that vaccines work and that there is a way to sustain immunity, we can perhaps inspire more confidence.
Government’s next steps and, equally, continuity with the incoming administration, will also be crucial. I cannot stress enough the importance of consistent policy. It will be key in how well and how fast we recover.
Confidence is contagious. If we show confidence that we are able to keep things under control and manage another increase in new cases, then we, in turn, inspire confidence in others.
We can encourage the hesitant to step outside their homes and enjoy life again. We can push our small entrepreneurs to take that risk and reopen their businesses knowing that the situation is better than before.
It’s also important to build the confidence of banks. They have to be reassured that the money they lend out can be repaid, and they have to see proof that businesses will stay open and earn enough to pay back the loans. In extension, we have to show our foreign creditors that the Philippines is not going to take this sheltering in place. We have to build their confidence that we can pay back our national debt, enough to be able to borrow again when needed.
But I do understand that the skyrocketing price of fuel and basic commodities has put a damper on things. It would not be fair to ask people to go out and spend when rising prices are making even the basics beyond reach.
I have been asked if I think a wage increase would be feasible at this time, and I shared that it would be more helpful to first create more jobs so that everyone gets to earn a living. I believe we have to be careful with these decisions because the situation in Russia and the Ukraine is so volatile. Inflation or stagflation, it could go either way, so, again, we have to be careful.
It’s impossible to predict whether the conflict in Europe will end abruptly or drag on for much, much longer. It’s not like the COVID outbreak, which at least we have some element of control over. With the war and the resulting rise in prices, we can only mitigate the effects. Hopefully, those of us who can help liven up the economy will be able to generate more jobs so our kababayans will have enough to weather this storm. We have very little choice in the matter. Our economy must not become a victim of war and pestilence.