As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll on society and the economy, good governance remains crucial in ensuring a coordinated government response. It was based on these themes that Dinagat Islands Gov. Kaka Bag-ao and Sen. Risa Hontiveros shared their insights in a webinar titled Taking The Lead: Good Governance in the Time of COVID last August 22 on Facebook Live.
The event was organized by the University Student Government (USG), together with the Office of Student Leadership Involvement, Formation and Empowerment; La Salle 2020; the Center for Social Concern and Action; Akbayan Youth; and the Center for Youth Advocacy and Networking Pilipinas.
Our communities, our frontlines
In the country’s struggle against the ongoing pandemic, the Dinagat Islands stood apart from other provinces as it remained free of cases of local transmission of COVID-19. Its first seven recorded cases came from locally stranded individuals who were immediately contained in the province’s quarantine and isolation facilities. As governor of one of the poorest provinces in the country, Bag-ao tagged the strict protocols as simply one of the mandates imposed by the province to contain the infection.
She explained that the success of the province in containing the virus and keeping the number of cases low in their locality was the result of the combined efforts of the community and the local government units (LGUs). The official hashtag used by the province, #OurCommunitiesOurFrontlines, encapsulated the sentiment.
“If people are informed, then they themselves will be the first to be part of the solution,” Bag-ao emphasized, citing how in her province, detailed explanations of community mandates were published in the language best understood by their constituents.
Constant communication between the community and the LGUs proved essential in the strict enforcement of quarantine protocols. Bag-ao elaborated that they treated the pandemic “not as something to fear but as a part of life”, exemplified by how their province undertook efforts to build a provincial care and containment center to accommodate COVID-19 cases and periodically closed its borders to limit movement.
With the country in the grips of an economic crisis, the Dinagat Islands provincial government launched two projects to bolster the local economy: the People’s Day Caravan that supports local agriculture and fisheries by providing boats for the fisherfolk and seeds for the farmers; and the Tabo sa Kapitolyo program, which serves an avenue for the province’s products to be displayed in a bazaar and sold to the province’s residents.
For Bag-ao, good governance is about “participation, decisive decision making, understanding human rights, and preferential option for the poor”,stressing that the pandemic cannot be solved through fear mongering or threats against the government’s constituents.
“We must go back to the basics,” asserted Bag-ao, saying that the first step is to look at the pandemic “as a health concern and a government problem.”
“Once we realize that we are all in this situation and that we are part of the solution, then the spread of COVID-19 will be something that we can address,” she added.
Using laws to govern
According to Hontiveros, there are sufficient laws in place to respond to the challenges brought by the pandemic, such as the Notifiable Diseases Act, which outlines policy and procedures against contagious diseases. “Under the Constitution,” she argued, “[the] government also had all the powers necessary to respond to what unfolded.”
However, the senator explained that despite the existence of such laws, the government is still unable to properly “test, trace, and isolate” suspected COVID-19 cases. She also lamented how the Philippines went through one of the longest lockdowns in the world without taking any other action. “The two week lockdown which health workers requested was made with the idea of recalibrating the government’s response and not merely staying at home,” she said in Filipino.
Hontiveros further criticized the government’s focus on other priorities unrelated to the health crisis, such as passing the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 into law and renewing calls to bring back the death penalty.
“Our democratic space is being strangled,” she declared in Filipino.
Responses that must be taken
Asked on what proper response the government must take, Hontiveros gave a number of propositions: first, health workers must be protected by providing them adequate equipment and safe workspaces; second, testing must be conducted within hotspots and especially among dense urban areas; third, the government must conduct “proactive contract tracing”, or finding the cases before they report themselves to the health centers; and finally, the capacity of the health system must be raised to boost its response capabilities.
One source of innovation, Hontiveros said, is to copy the best practices of LGUs. But, to her dismay, she instead saw the COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force micromanaging the local government.
Hontiveros believed that governance is best defined as one “led by a modern, rules-based government” as well as involving “an active citizenry.” The senator emphasized that the countries with the best pandemic response, such as New Zealand and South Korea, are strong democracies that were able to encourage citizen participation.
The youth, Hontiveros added, could also contribute their technology skills to “rally [their] fellow young Filipinos to organize and educate themselves about [current] issues.”
The senator further elaborated that there is an overlap between public health response and economic recovery, expressing in Filipino, “the government must be ready to spend sufficiently in order to cut down infections and fund packages to restart the economy.” She also maintained that the country should not be imprisoned by the “false dichotomy” of having to pick between public health and the economy.
“We want both; we want it all,” she declared.