MANILA —  Experts who joined international research organization Stratbase ADR Institute’s (ADRi) Pilipinas Conference 2021: Recovering Philippine Democracy Beyond 2022 said corruption compounded the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, urging voters to elect new leaders with clear platforms capable of addressing both problems.

During the online conference, ADRi President and political analyst Dindo Manhit pointed the three main things discussed, “the urgency of an economic recovery, the fight against disinformation, and the push for democratic renewal.”  

Manhit cited an ADRi-commissioned Social Weather Stations Survey (SWS) which showed that four out of the top five issues Filipinos believe national candidates should address involve the economy: “controlling the prices of services/commodities” (57 percent), “providing jobs” (54percent), “increasing the wages of workers” (27 percent), “reducing the poverty of Filipinos” (24 percent) and eradicating and fighting graft and corruption in government” (44 percent).

“We must learn from the damaging lessons of this time and seize the opportunity to revitalize our nation from the deep scars of the pandemic and governance crisis,” Manhit said.

“One of the key challenges of the 2022 elections is pandemic disinformation. We’ve seen it since 2016, we speak of wrong information that paralyzes people’s critical ability to choose leaders. We need to collectively expose and denounce trolls and disinformation machineries,” he added.

He also noted that the same survey revealed that eight out of 10 Filipinos believe in collaboration between the public and private sectors to accelerate growth.

“The economic consequences of the pandemic, aggravated by the administration’s mismanagement of the health crisis, have resulted in record economic decline, unemployment, hunger, poverty, and a much-depressed quality of life,” Manhit said.

Commission on Audit (COA) Chairman Michael Aguinaldo also stressed the significance of citizen participation in controlling corruption and promoting good governance.

Aguinaldo cited COA’s Citizen Participatory Audit, established almost a decade ago, wherein ordinary citizens and non-government organizations work side by side with auditors in the conduct of performance audits of government projects.

“The key, therefore, to recovering democracy beyond 2022 is to provide ways by which the people can feel they are a part of government apart from merely voting for representatives,” Aguinaldo said.

Former economic planning secretary and director-general of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Ernesto Pernia highlighted the “glaring discrepancy between the projected COVID-19 loans of $72 billion and the spending of $31 billion.”  

Pernia, who asked where the $41 billion went and if it could be accounted for, suggested a 10-point agenda to support economic recovery; fortify the health system; revamp education; prioritize science, technology, and innovation; revitalize agriculture and expand manufacturing; open further the economy; foster public-private partnerships; invest in environment and nature protection; protect the blue economy in the West Philippine Sea; strengthen sense of urgency; and address the population problem. 

“First, investments can open in periods of stress. Second, massive investments, both public and private, can address health care deficiency. The government cannot do it alone, nor can the private sector do it alone. And three, investments can prepare the Philippine economy transition to post-pandemic world,” former Bangko Sentral deputy governor Diwa Guinigundo stressed, noting the three reasons why investments matter in the Philippines’ recovery from COVID-19.

Former Ombudsman and Supreme Court Justice Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, on the other hand, called for a renewed fight for democracy, insisting that “democracy cannot coexist with dictatorship and is not an “anything goes” kind of government where abuses can be tolerated in the guise of a greater good, such as peace and order or national discipline.”  

“Accountability is not limited to determining who is at fault but extends to the government’s capacity to be answerable to the people and to provide solutions, and to redeem itself after failure,” Carpio-Morales said.

COVID-19 exposed economic inequalities    

In a report by The Philippine Star, forum resource speaker Ateneo School of Government Dean Ronald Mendoza said the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the country’s economic inequalities, noting that the low to middle-income classes were proven to be the most vulnerable to shocks or adverse impacts. 

“I believe the economic inequality and the political inequality are very much tied to each other, favoring a wealthy political class and not in favor of the vast majority of our poor and low-income Filipinos,” Mendoza said, noting that country’s next leaders should push for a “more inclusive society and more inclusive economy.”  

“Several key elements (to address inequalities) include strong social protection, regulation of dynasties and finally, improving competition in the economy, such as opening up sectors which have been heavily regulated and protected,” he added.

Resource speaker Council for Health and Development (CHD) Executive Director Dr. Leni Jara, on the other hand, noted that “the current Philippine health care system is really not in very good shape.”  

“About 41 percent of those who died (from the pandemic) were not attended to by any public health officials. Most of them, almost half, died in their homes,” Jara said, bemoaning the lack of aggressive contact tracing since the start of the pandemic and the still expensive testing for COVID-19.  

“We have been under-tested throughout these times. There is a shrinking government role in health. Even during the pandemic, when there was a special Bayanihan (Act), budget was not used 100 percent,” she added.

“We are in for another battle to fight for our democracy. Fighting corruption and advocating transparent and responsive governance is a stand we must all make, because real change is a collective endeavor. All stakeholders need to work together and exert effort to usher in truly meaningful reforms, and not the cosmetic kind. These we have to keep in mind as we choose our next leaders,” he said.