One thing the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching the world is that it is important for communities, both at local and at national levels, to be self sufficient. The drastic equalising effect of this global disaster can be felt in the accelerated dismantling of the fragile international inter-dependencies built up over decades of the “globalisation” frenzy.
Rich countries are slowly coming to terms with the wasteland that was their once formidable manufacturing sectors. As international trade grinds to a halt, the prospect of struggling to source the most essential products — ventilators for the sick, spare parts for machinery, material for food packaging, toilet paper — is facing many First World economic managers. In hindsight it becomes easy to see the ravages caused by the disproportionate trust entire governments had put on big corporate “strategy” even as they sacrificed sensible regulation and governance at the altar of “global trade”.
The whole idea that the transformation of an economy from a manufacturing-based one to a services-based one is “progress” is being turned on its head. Wealthy countries that had outsourced enormous swathes of manufacturing capability to China and other cheap-labour countries are now faced with the daunting task of propping up national economies that merely swirl money around to create “value” through trade, services, and consumption but, disturbingly, could no longer make tangible things like machines, devices, cars, and, yes, toilet paper. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the old World War II axis powers supposedly “defeated” in that great war — Germany and Japan — are amongst the few rich countries that could still make things on their own.
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Even embattled former Nazi ally Italy which is saddled with the worst impacts of the pandemic still has one local manufacturer of ventilators it can rely on. Italy’s Siare Engineering is now rising to a call to action to step up production of a “key weapon” in the war against the novel coronavirus. It is a call very likely not received by a private enterprise from its national government since the Second World War. Decisions and actions were made swiftly. “[Siare company head Gianluca Preziosa] managed to redirect already sold ventilators bound for Asia” back to Italian hospitals where they are desperately needed, and;
As hospitals in Lombardy started to receive these first ventilators, Preziosa had to quickly rethink the assembly of his life-saving machines to fulfill the Italian government’s order. “Usually, each worker is responsible for putting together a whole unit themselves, bringing together the ten sections, from the wheel base to the monitor. Now we had to make a new work flow where people focused just on making one section.”
This and other such demonstrations of quick response to a national effort will likely define the new world order that could arise in the aftermath of this global pandemic. Economic independence — consuming and using stuff you are capable of building and growing in your own backyard — will come back into vogue as entire governments realise the wisdom of living within one’s domestic means. This does not mean global trade will disappear. It just means that outsourcing to the cheap and importing from the cheap will no longer be regarded as the necessarily most sensible default business decision.
The Philippines is a particular case study of vulnerability at so many levels. Like many First World countries, it is hobbled by a manufacturing sector severely-atrophied by decades of globalisation. However, unlike those countries, most of which have strong industrial traditions, the Philippines is not in a position to rebuild manufacturing capacity from scratch as its supply of imported essential manufactured goods dries up. Its consumer economy is propped up by three brittle points of failure — remittances from a vast army of overseas workers, businesses funded by foreign capital, and operations outsourced to it by the First World. All of these, in turn, are supplied by imported goods, provided management and technical expertise by foreign firms, and kept humming by imported capital equipment that require spare parts sourced overseas.
Unlike Italy today (and the allied and axis powers of World War II), the Philippines has no industrial capability nor tradition to turn into a war machine. Calls to undertake COVID-19 “mass testing” issued today by “woke” virtue signallers are ridiculous considering the very real cost and physical supply limits of testing kits. Even in the United States, for example, which is in a far better position to deal with crises than the Philippines, it was found necessary to take a tiered approach to testing and not be panicked into latching on to this quaint fantasy of “mass testing”.
Indeed, much of what sustains the Philippines’ enormous population is made possible almost entirely by imported medical technology. In a world of countries locking down borders and redirecting exports of essential medical equipment and devices to domestic use, impoverished countries like the Philippines are effectively on their own. While the ability to develop COVID-19 testing technology indigenously had been proven by the University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health (UP NIH), the capability to step up production of these at a scale and volume required to serve the Philippines’ vast population remains to be seen. For now, Filipinos continue to rely on PCR based lab kits at the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine (RITM) donated by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Perhaps there is reason to believe that the Philippines will survive this crisis just as it survived past disasters almost all of which it was woefully unprepared to deal with. However, what makes the COVID-19 pandemic different is that it is also impacting countries the Philippines traditionally relies on to bail it out of trouble. This just means it is high time Filipinos rethink their habitual dependence on foreign powers to function as a modern society. More importantly, Filipinos need to learn to be accountable for their own well-being and for the important task of maintaining a state of preparedness to deal with what an increasingly complex world might throw at them next.
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.