The virus and federalism

"Could government have responded better if it had been in another form?"


Rounding into Week Four of the virus—which sadly coincides with Holy Week this year—it’s now the turn of Dr. Renato Velasco to be eulogized on behalf of all the victims last week, as someone who was both well-known and particularly close to me.

Rene was a comrade from the student Left of the ‘60s and ‘70. He was also my fraternity brother in Alpha Sigma, as was his older brother Reggie, both of whom found themselves opposite each other across the aisle through much of their careers as political managers. But Rene was also well-regarded as a serious academic who taught in UP all his life and gained a reputation as a Japan, then China, expert.

While in the Left, Rene was charged with handling, among others, a former president’s daughter named Gloria Macapagal. As her political star ascended, he was always around to support her in various capacities—as her chief of staff and head of PIA and PMS, among others. And when she decided the other year to revive the defunct Association of Philippine China Understanding from her student activist days, Rene was the natural choice to preside over it.

Rene’s passage was not the gift he would have preferred to leave with Mrs. Arroyo on her birthday last Sunday. But such choices are never ours to make. There are many of us who join her in wishing him a fond hasta la vista—till we meet again.

* * *

As government scrambles to catch up with the escalating pandemic, armed only with a rickety healthcare infrastructure, some people are saying that this experience has sounded the death knell for federalism, i.e. for any initiative to delegate a lot more power downwards from the central government in Manila to local provincial and municipal governments, ideally mediated through a new regional level of governance.

These critics are saying that government could have responded as well as it did, only by being a centralized unitary state. This is of course begging the real question. What ought to be asked is this: Could the government in fact have responded BETTER if it had been a federal and not a unitary government? Better or worse—which “what-if” is likelier, based on reasoning and evidence?

I’ll make the following points, summoned up partly in answer to the Business World piece last March 26, “China coronavirus killed federalism,” written by the estimable law professor Jemy Gatdula of UA&P, my younger comrade in the political and religious conservative stream:

First, disaster response will always be the responsibility of the central government. In the United States, the agency responsible is the Federal Emergency Management Authority, which in a case like this would mainly be supported by the Atlanta-based

Centers for Disease Control. In the Philippines, the “Bayanihan” recovery act with all its cross-cutting powers and functions could only be written by a central legislature. And both military and police powers have always been intended by local federalists to remain with Manila.

Second, having said that, the actual execution of disaster response—especially in an archipelagic country like ours—will always depend heavily on the capacities of local governments, from provincial down to barangay levels. Judging from the nature of complaints we’ve been seeing, this is where the problem arises: Not just in the lack of resources and responsiveness of many local governments especially at the barangay level, but also in their frequent inability to coordinate well with national government agencies concerned. On the last point, the blame runs both ways.

Precisely because of the extensively cross-cutting reach of the needed response to the epidemic—vertically between national and local governments, and horizontally among LGUs at different levels—my proposition is this: The response would have been best executed by and through a regional level of government that coordinates execution vertically between Manila and its subordinate LGUs, horizontally among those LGUs, and internally within each LGU. Any one of those regional governments would always be closer to its constituencies than Manila is, for execution, monitoring, and compliance purposes.

In his piece, Jemy makes the puzzling point that under US-style federalism, “it’s the

local governments that take the lead in times of crisis.” He cites one John Yoo: “Washington D.C. has only limited powers to respond to a pandemic…The primary authority to fight the pandemic rests in the hands of our state governors.”

If Jemy is right, I’m quite happy to take back the very first point I made above about the US situation. Because by doing so, I’m happier to emphasize the real point I’m making:

That empowerment of local governments and resources is what really matters even in a crisis. Therefore, they should be properly resourced and led from a regional level—not only for short-term emergencies, but even more—after this crisis­—to build long-term the health, public works, information, and logistics infrastructures that will better withstand any future return of the virus.

Jemy does advance an argument well. Unfortunately, it’s my argument, not his.

* * *

The first reading today (Is 49: 1-6) has the prophet Isaiah exhort the people of Israel to turn away from evil ways and return to the holiness God reserved for them. This holiness was demanded by the role God had given to them as His people: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

In the Gospel (Jn 13: 21-33, 36-38), the betrayal by Judas at the Last Supper quickens the pace of the Passion drama, prompting Jesus to sorrowfully tell Peter: “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now, though you will follow later,” and then to admonish all His disciples: “I give you a new commandment: love one another…This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Since the people of the Old Book would not follow Isaiah’s exhortation to bring God’s light to the ends of the earth, it fell upon Jesus—and through Him, His disciples afterward—to shine that light upon others through the sheer force of their example of love even in the depths of persecution. But only after Jesus had to first open the door of salvation through His own Passion, when He could bring Himself to say to the retreating back of a treacherous Judas: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.”

Readers can write me at [email protected]

Topics: Gary Olivar , The virus and federalism , Holy Week , Dr. Renato Velasco , coronavirus disease 2019 , COVID-19
COMMENT DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted on this Web site are not in any way endorsed by Manila Standard. Comments are views by readers who exercise their right to free expression and they do not necessarily represent or reflect the position or viewpoint of While reserving this publication’s right to delete comments that are deemed offensive, indecent or inconsistent with Manila Standard editorial standards, Manila Standard may not be held liable for any false information posted by readers in this comments section.
AdvertisementGMA-Working Pillars of the House