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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

A just recovery: Building back better in the Philippines after COVID-19

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As with anything, the end could go at least two ways.

There is the first option: of things going back to normal, the way we’ve always known before the world as we knew it came to a screeching halt.

Normal was the story of our hospitals being perpetually understaffed with workers consistently overloaded even on our best days. It’s the story about a supposedly pro-people leader deeming ending contractualization impossible to “preserve a balance” in favor of business interests. It’s the repetitive tale of officials patting each other on the back for reported economic growth while calls for a living wage of P750 stood ignored.

It is clear that our normal has always been unsustainable as it only worked for the interests of the few. It failed us merely days into a state-imposed COVID-19 quarantine and revealed the pitfalls of our broken system. Our version of normal has not only overburdened our health sector to the point of near collapse, but revealed that our narrative of resilience needed to be more than a story we tell ourselves to feel better in the aftermath of disasters.

The second option is an outright rejection of all of the above. Over 300 organizations have called for a just recovery after the COVID-19 outbreak. This is a call globally for countries to ensure that public health is put first, economic relief is provided directly to people, help is extended to workers and communities and not corporate executives, resilience is created for future crises and solidarity and community is built across borders, disempowering authoritarians.

A just recovery means taking responsibility for the painstaking task that is building back a better and stronger world, one that does not crumble at the onset of disruptions like that of the COVID-19 outbreak’s scale. This time, we’ll pick up the tools and create it ourselves. For the Philippines, this means genuine bayanihan: community care, solidarity and sustainable progress that leaves no one behind. Here are visions grounded on that.

Enacting fair labor laws and upholding workers’ rights

Pre-existing widespread contractualization and discrimination against low-income, precarious, and informal workers aggravate the country’s situation amid a public health emergency. Three out of five employed persons in Luzon, or 14.4 million workers, are non-regular, and informal earners according to research group IBON. Due to the Luzon-wide lockdown, they face not only lost wages and earnings, but also uncertain terms of direct financial assistance because of their employment status. Expedient government support is needed especially to those depending on daily wage for subsistence.

The present situation of these workers reflects the critical role of job security, living wages, and sustained income, in building and increasing their capacity to endure and cooperate in dealing with a public health crisis.

As we work to end COVID-19, we must also end the conditions that breed the virus of inequality in labor: contractualization, unfair labor practices, hazardous work conditions, and union repression.

In a country rich with natural resources, it is unacceptable for Filipino workers to remain poor. The government has the obligation to uphold the dignity of workers and the people. Security of tenure and protection of workers’ rights must be the top priority. Fully supporting Philippine industries, enterprises and agrarian development, along with setting the national minimum wage, bolsters not only local production and domestic job creation, but also, our overall capacity to further propel our national economy upwards.

Pushing for universal health care, proactive public health, and safe conditions for health workers

A few days ago, the government decided that PhilHealth will shoulder the cost of hospital treatment of all COVID-19-infected Filipino patients. The poor and the working class should never have to worry about medical treatment and hospital expenses at this crucial time. This move reveals that obtaining genuinely universal healthcare access by lowering or eliminating every Filipino’s out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare, especially hospitalizations and treatments due to any kinds of diseases, injuries, or medical conditions, is not a far possibility.

As of today, our government has increased its capacity to test for COVID-19 by activating five more sub-national laboratories, alongside the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine. Hopefully, we will have more in order to carry out mass testing to slow down the outbreak.

However, these measures are reactive. The best way to protect the health of the public is through proactive measures that prepare us for potential outbreaks long before the need arises. One way to do this is to expand the Philippine Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response (PIDSR) so that we can identify emerging infectious diseases before they can even spread. Another way is to ensure that research and development, immunization drives and disease monitoring shouldn’t take a backseat.

Lastly, we need a universal healthcare law can address the need for health workers by requiring graduates of health-related courses with government-funded scholarships to work in the country’s health sector for three years as return service. However, the majority of health workers receive a salary that cannot sustain their family’s needs. Contractualization further endangers the welfare and job security of Filipino health workers. The government must pass a law ending contractualization, regularizing the contract of service health workers, and raising the minimum wages of all medical professionals.

Making science and education a priority

Given that the Philippines is prone to a lot of hazards and is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, we should think of science as our first and main line of defense. In other words, we need to invest more, and invest better, on basic research that is guided by a long-term, sustainable development policy.

That said, a society where knowledge is concentrated among a tiny elite cannot effectively respond to a threat like a pandemic. Note that effective crisis communication requires a public that (1) understands how risk works and (2) has the ability to identify reliable sources of information and distinguish real experts from fake ones. To give a specific example, note that a small group of citizens who do not believe in vaccination can threaten the health of the whole of society.

This means we should push harder for reforms in education that focuses on molding graduates who can think critically, rather than on merely training would-be workers for a constantly disrupted labor market.

We need many things to achieve this. We need to increase the salary of public school teachers. We need to increase the number and improve the training of new teachers. We need to modernize educational infrastructure throughout the entire country, ensuring that every Filipino student has access to the internet. We need to make public colleges and universities tuition-free.

Given these proposals, it is natural to ask, “How can we afford them?” But as this pandemic has taught us, what we really should be asking is, “Can we afford to go on as before?”

Championing environmental conservation and climate action, and building resilience in the face of crises

It is high time to acknowledge that further environmental destruction and a warming planet means that pandemics are more likely moving into the future.

In the Philippines, we have existing laws on the protection of biodiversity and wildlife as well as well-defined commitments to international climate agreements. Still, the mainstreaming of these at the local level must be implemented in order to protect not only ecosystems and the climate system but ourselves. For example, effectively enforcing the ban on wildlife trafficking – as the practice can potentially import and export zoonotic diseases that negatively affect our animal industry and human health — should be a priority.

Building resilience means being proactive in tackling crises — all of them. For the climate fight, we are already seeing a dramatic cut in emissions, particularly in transport, because of the outbreak. Still, this is not something to celebrate if it comes at the expense of lives and livelihoods. These cuts are also not sustainable as they don’t represent real commitments from governments to slash emissions in line with the 1.5-degrees-Celsius target.

A decisive shift in how economies are rebuilt and run from hereon out represents a chance to recalibrate how exactly we’re powering up our societies. Studies show that our old way of using coal energy to generate electricity has also resulted in a public health crisis. It is a practice rife with human rights violations apart from being bad for a warming world, as it is very much detrimental to the safety, security and well-being of communities residing by and displaced by these plants. This is particularly true in the Philippines, where community environmental defenders are threatened and even killed when standing up against big companies.

Combating climate change should not be an afterthought. It should be a guide which we can use to restructure our systems. More than anything, we need a whole-of-nation approach to addressing the climate crisis, one that not only keeps emissions down and ecosystems intact but also creates jobs, assures social safeguards for the vulnerable and builds resilience in the face of impacts. Perhaps conversations for a Philippine version of a comprehensive policy package similar to a Green New Deal should begin.

Sarah Elago serves as the representative of Kabataan, a youth sectoral party-list, in the 17th and 18th Congress. Beatrice Tulagan is a writer and a climate activist, serving as the East Asia Field Organizer for Rafael Navarro is a registered chemist and a science research specialist doing molecular microbiology in the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine – Department of Health. Pecier Decierdo is a science communicator for The Mind Museum.

The authors' views are their own and do not represent the views of their respective organizations.


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