Certain “thought leaders” are issuing shrill commentary on the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns aimed to mitigate its effects. The fact is, most if not all countries are suffering from economic crises in varying degrees thanks to the brittle world order of intricately interdependent and interlinked economies created by “globalisation”. Amateur economists of the sorts that write for “social news networks” like Rappler are dishonestly painting the economic plight of the Philippines in absolute terms rather than regarding it in relative terms by comparing it like-for-like.
It is true, indeed, that much of what the Philippines had gained economically over a period spanning more than ten years had been undone over just the last couple. The Philippines had performed worse relative to other countries because it does not have sound economic fundamentals to begin with and much of the economic achievements trumpeted by successive governments in the first two decades of the 21st Century are labour-added-value in nature — Filipinos working in factories funded by foreign capital, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), and work outsourced to the Philippines by rich countries. Much of the economic activities that create employment in both big cities and rural areas are tethered to foreign funding. Break those tethers and the whole house of cards fall. This is essentially what happened when the world went on lockdown. Those whose economies possessed true substance did relatively well. Those that depended on said substance trickling down to their gaping mouths suffered more.
As much as has been made about the “miracle” that was supposedly the Philippine economy over the 21st Century leading up to 2020, the sad fact is that the Philippines, at its core, remains very much Third World.
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(1) It is a country that populated way beyond any inherent ability of its society to sustain their numbers.
Philippine society’s indigenous technological capability cannot, by itself, sustain its people’s aspirational standard of living. Something as basic as committing to sustaining the enormous population Filipinos find themselves stuck with cannot be honoured to the standard most Westerners and northeast Asians enjoy. This leads one to the question of why Filipinos committed to such an enormous population to begin with. Said population had become a liability rather than an asset in this regard if seen from the context of Western standards of living.
(2) It built an economy composed of unsustainable industries and propped up by consumption.
The Philippines is no more than a consumer market. Filipinos simply spend their money and spend their days finding ever more creative ways to convince themselves how much they deserve to spend their money on the latest trinket or gadget.
In that kind of a market, what sorts of industries is the Philippines likely to attract under a hypothetical regime of unfettered access to foreign capital of the sort preferred by foreign governments and investment banks? Most likely this: industries that will further grease the pipeline that channels cheap manufactured goods from highly-capitalised economies to the living rooms of increasingly impoverished Filipinos. Filipinos, in turn, will increasingly fund these purchases with the same old labour-intensive solutions — working overseas and working for the factories and retail outlets that manufacture and sell them these trinkets.
(3) Filipinos did not build a capital base that serves as a stable store of economic value and a foundation that provides a soft landing in times of economic crisis.
Despite the Philippines being host to abundant natural resources, and now, an enormous supply of people, the society as a whole lacks a collective ability to apply this enormous number of people to the task of turning these resources into any sort of valuable economic output of consequence. Instead, natural resources are harvested raw and sold raw — mineral ore, logs, overseas foreign workers. Overseas, these then get turned into iPhones, karaoke machines, those shirts with the Philippine islands embroidered onto their left breasts, Honda Civics, Havaianas, and Starbucks tumblers after which they are shipped back to the Philippines to be purchased using OFW cash.
There is no real equity at the core of such a society’s economic house of cards. There is nothing in the Philippines beyond the muscle of its workers that is worth buying. When demand for labour vanishes, Filipinos are left with virtually nothing. No world-class business assets and brands to sell, no safe and pleasant (much less interesting) cities and countrysides to offer to European and Japanese backpackers, no lush forests to pitch to researchers and eco-tourists, no world-class cutting-edge indigenous technology and scientific achievement to fall back to and build upon from scratch if necessary. Nothing.
(4) Its people lack an ethic of self-reliance ingrained in their cultural fabric.
Despite the Philippines being a democracy with a free market economy, its “thought leaders” see the poor as exempt from the expectation that everyone be equal participants in the free market. Whereas “well-to-do” people are expected to compete and account for their own success or failure, poor people are considered to be people who need to be given a break — given a break from taxes, given a break from complying with the law, and even given a break for being stupid. Indeed, if the poor are regarded as subject to the same rules the middle classes and up abide by, the jeepney would long have been consigned to a museum, squatters would have long ago been scraped off public land, and certain crooked showbiz celebrities and politicians accused of sexual misconduct and rebellion thrown in jail.
Self-reliance and an ability to chart one’s own path and develop original ideas is what underpins success in today’s world. Rather than wean Filipinos off reliance on the ideas of old colonial masters, the Philippines’ foremost “thought leaders” remain adamant in sustaining the debilitating colonial mentality that had long been a cornerstone of Philippine society’s edifice of dysfunction.
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In short, there really should be no surprises around the dysfunctional manner with which Filipinos managed the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. They routinely don’t fare well when it comes to routine natural calamities such as the garden-variety tropical cyclones that visit the islands every year. Even basic infrastructure like public transportation had been left in a decrepit post World War II state well into the 21st Century. So, guess what, it really does not make sense to be expecting much of Filipinos when it comes to risk mitigation and disaster response — and certainly no surprise that the Philippines’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic can be counted as among the worst in the world.
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