Pandemic response — as well as reviving the economy that was devastated by lockdowns — will be the first challenge of President Rodrigo Duterte’s successor.

Candidates in the May 9 elections began their campaigns on Tuesday, Feb. 8, amid restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The elections is very important because the next President will inherit a government and a situation wherein the pandemic remains prevalent, and the economy is in a slump. Those are on top of already existing challenges of the country,” said Ronald Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government, in an interview with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). 

Mendoza, an economist who is also a member of the Covid-19 Academic Crisis Response Consortium, sat down for a Zoom interview with the PCIJ to discuss the challenges facing the country's next president. Mendoza has written a number of research papers on the government's response to the pandemic.

While the country’s Covid-19 cases are showing a decline following a post-holiday surge due to the Omicron variant, Mendoza said the presidential candidates cannot afford to rely on the hope that the improving situation will necessarily continue.

“We cannot base public policy on hope. We cannot base public policy on false expectations that the science does not really back up. Already, scientists are saying there is no real evidence to suggest that this is all over, that Omicron is the worst one that we will face,” he said.

“But there is evidence that vaccinations helped us withstand the Omicron surge. And it will help us withstand any possible surges in the future,” he added.

Improving the country's vaccination rates is key, he said. The next president will need to address vaccine hesitancy and inequity. The National Capital Region and neighboring Calabarzon get an inordinate share of vaccine supply.

As of Feb. 4, 2022, only 54% of the country’s adult population have been fully vaccinated. It’s the second-worst vaccination rate among the five biggest economies in Southeast Asia.

Mendoza also singled out Duterte’s rhetoric, which he said harmed the country’s health campaign. “The first thing that has to change when it comes to the country’s pandemic response is the President’s voice and rhetoric in handling it…. Instead of scaring the public, we need to encourage them to get vaccinated. We need to instill confidence."

Duterte was previously criticized for shaming those who refused to get the jab and once, for threatening them with jail time. 

A new leader should also be appointed at the helm of the health department, Mendoza said.  

The next president cannot  just resort to prolonged lockdowns, he added. Unlike Duterte, who started his presidency reaping the economic gains of the previous Aquino administration, his successor will not have this luxury.

Mendoza said a good pandemic response is a requisite to improving confidence in the economy that was devastated by prolonged lockdowns, and helping the people recover from its scarring effects. 

In the Business Expectations Survey of the Philippine central bank, business confidence consistently turned pessimistic when the government imposed stricter quarantine measures due to Covid-19 surges.

“For a fast-growing economy like the Philippines, you would want to convey to investors that we are the place you should invest in, because [you can say]: ‘Look at how well we did during the pandemic, you can expect that [good governance] when you invest in the Philippines,’” Mendoza said. 

“Unfortunately, we cannot say that… So that’s what the next President needs to build back on, the confidence [of investors and consumers] in our economy.”

He said the next president should focus, in his or her first three months, showing Filipinos that they do not need to choose between their jobs and their health, Mendoza said. 

“One of the things we should build towards is [putting] health and the economy together. The countries that did this as twin goals are the most successful. They don’t lock down because lockdown is a signal of failure. They don’t fail on search-control because you are buying your economy and your health system time to manage it better. That was the balance we really needed." END


Top photo by Angie De Silva for PCIJ

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