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Early this month, I had the honor of being given the 2023 President’s Award by the Philippine Retailers Association. The PRA was kind enough to acknowledge my efforts during the pandemic, when we tried and worked with national and local governments, with the health officials and pandemic experts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic lockdowns on our MSMEs.
Throughout this time, we worked closely with the PRA, which has been a steadfast partner of Go Negosyo for many years. Their membership comprises not just the big retailers, but also the smaller ones. In general, it was the small businesses that suffered more during the lockdowns. They didn’t have the deep pockets that the big retailers had, and struggled harder than most.
It wasn’t an easy job being the voice of the MSMEs during the pandemic, but it was a task I chose. I believed it was incumbent upon me as the Presidential Adviser on Entrepreneurship to do so. But tackling this whole new problem of a global health emergency thrust me into the unfamiliar territory of public health and pandemic management. Thankfully, there were plenty of experts who generously offered their guidance, such as the pool of doctors and scientists that we eventually organized into the Advisory Council of Experts.
I remember that in March 2020, we at Go Negosyo had an event at the World Trade Center Metro Manila – the Women Summit – where around 8,000 people were in attendance. This was shortly before then president Rodrigo Duterte declared a state of public health emergency, effectively restricting mobility for a month.
On March 31, 2020, I convened the private sector with the Interagency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) to persuade the government to adopt granular lockdowns rather than a Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine. But as it became clearer that Covid-19 was no ordinary respiratory illness, the one-month restriction turned into months. Thus began my three-year journey into this very challenging task.
The initial solution we arrived at, while everyone was in quarantine and especially for those who still needed to work on-site, was to use Antigen Rapid test Kits (ARK) in the interim. Testing, I believed, was the way to create visibility of the virus so that authorities can isolate and treat those who were infected.
While that was happening, there was still the matter of the vaccines. Covid-19 vaccines did not become available for emergency use until the fourth quarter of 2020, and by the first part of 2021, the whole world was still scrambling to get supply.
Several pharmaceutical companies offered to help the government secure vaccines, but Philippine procurement laws prohibited it from doing so. AstraZeneca then approached SM’s Tessie Sy Coson and BDO’s Nestor Tan to see if they could partner with the government in a possible workaround. Tessie recommended that I be looped in, as I perhaps had the most flight time with public-private sector cooperation concerning the Covid-19 pandemic.
By October 2020, I and the private sector embarked on the vaccine procurement initiative which we called “A Dose of Hope” (ADOH), which was a world’s first as it was a tripartite agreement between government, the private sector and the vaccine manufacturers that allowed us to procure vaccines despite the bureaucratic barriers.
With our testing initiative, I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who contributed their time and expertise. Faced with the problem of expensive RT-PCR tests, we were introduced to pooled testing. Pooled testing lowered the costs by as much as 20 to 30 percent, and afforded targeted, systematic and, most important of all, accessible testing.
But even as this was happening, life and business had to go on. We already knew to test for possible infections, and the vaccines were slowly trickling in. What we needed now was to create a wall of immunity so that we protected each other and are able to move the economy along while still being safe.
So I embarked on a campaign to convince people to go and get vaccinated. We held townhalls over online conferencing platforms to create awareness in the public and bridge their concerns with the IATF. These became regular online townhall meetings where government and private sector would dialogue, and became invaluable as challenges like vaccine hesitancy, brand discrimination and even lockdowns were discussed.
As many during the pandemic found themselves pivoting to digital platforms, we, too, at Go Negosyo found ways to continue our entrepreneurship mentoring. Our KMME and KAMMP programs were conducted online and we managed to see through from training to graduation several batches of entrepreneurs from all over the country. Online, our general entrepreneurship mentoring went on through our Facebook Live show Go Negoshow. For many struggling entrepreneurs during the pandemic, this was their lifeline.
During the lockdowns, the line of communication between the private sector and the government remained open. Looking back, it was this cooperation that really helped us see our MSMEs through the worst of the pandemic.
Using data from our friends at OCTA Research as well as insights from several experts, we pushed for a lockdown in the NCR in August 2021 in order to prevent a surge in the fourth quarter. This foresight allowed the economy to reopen during the holiday season, and gave us better-than-expected GDP growth which carried through even through to 2022.
The lessons from this public-private sector cooperation during the pandemic I would carry with me through to my current post as the lead for the Jobs Sector cluster of the Private Sector Advisory Council. And now I am faced with yet another daunting task: job generation. One of the avenues through which I am tackling this problem is through MSMEs. I believe that scaling up our MSMEs will generate the most inclusive, sustainable growth in jobs as they make up almost all of the enterprises in the country. When the MSMEs succeed, we all benefit, even the big companies. I thank the PRA for this affirmation. With renewed focus on the smaller retailers, we will move forward even faster as we direct our efforts in the same direction.