Soda and pork intestines: When COVID-19 relief operations miss the mark

As a developing country with one of the highest cases of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia, relief operations in the Philippines are seen to be a lifesaving act to people in need. These operations started initially with the national government urging local government units (LGUs) to help their communities, and continued with private individuals and groups initiating their own relief operations in local villages. Although there has been a wide range of response, it is important that relief operations, especially during a pandemic, are conducted strategically. Unfortunately, in the Philippines, some relief operations have been poorly allocated, abused by beneficiaries, and hindered by asymmetrical coordination between different actors.

What constitutes a good relief operation?

Within 72 hours after President Rodrigo Duterte appeared on national TV to announce community quarantine across the entire island of Luzon and urged LGUs to act in response, a particular barangay (village) LGU began distributing pork intestines to their community. Within a week, a private company in the same village donated hundreds of cans of soft drink. While such an act of generosity is much appreciated, it misses the core purpose of relief operations.

Unaware of what’s happening in the world, a village farmer is caught in surprise when he is given a pack of pork intestine. Why pork intestine and why soft drink?

Within 72 hours after the community quarantine announcement, it is expected that such forms of emergency relief are not yet necessary. It is even less necessary in rural areas where there is no community quarantine in place.

For some Filipinos this assessment may be considered as being ‘ingrata’ or ungrateful. The point here is that with limited resources and with little certainty as to when this pandemic will end, it is very important to think twice and strategically consider where to allocate our limited resources. It seems like local governments were rattled when President Duterte announced that they must play a significant role in responding to the pandemic. As a result, they acted automatically without strategically considering what, where, and to whom should the relief be provided.

The Philippine government is currently distributing financial assistance to poor families across the Philippines. In addition to the lack of proper listing of beneficiaries, it is unfortunate that the police have caught people using their financial assistance for gambling such as cock-fighting and playing cards. These are the same recipients who previously rallied for assistance to buy food.

It therefore raises another question on whether it is appropriate to provide cash-based relief or if it is just another way of perpetuating the dependency of some people on what the government provides them. This question was already brewing when the Philippines government signed into law the 4Ps program, a government program that provides cash assistance to poor families whose children are going to school.

Beneficiaries of the 4Ps program are provided with an ATM card so that they can conveniently withdraw the money given to them by the government. However, reports show that some of these beneficiaries pawn their ATM cards and use the money for non-basic needs such as buying illegal drugs and gambling.

Another issue that stems from relief operations is coordination. As an archipelagic country with a unitary form of government, it is important that there is a clear delineation between the national and local government’s duties and responsibilities during the current pandemic. However, the lack of clear-cut guidelines between the national and local government units has resulted in conflicting strategies and approaches.

In one instance, the national government summoned an LGU for allowing the operation of a tricycle in times of community quarantine. The LGU argued that they allow tricycles as they are the most available means of transportation for people to go to the hospital as public utility jeepneys are all not allowed to travel. In Mindanao where the newly formed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region geographically overlaps with Cotabato City, tension involving the enhanced community quarantine guidelines has occurred. This is difficult considering the fragile peace situation in the area.

Source: Brian Evans

With relief operations more focused on those in the informal sector and the unemployed, another issue that has gained prominence is the government’s response to the middle class – the working class who are paying taxes and are now suffering from job losses.

The government’s original plan for the relief operation did not include relief for the middle class. With social media recently flooded with commentaries on how are we responding to the this section of society the Philippine government is now considering giving those in the middle-class relief.

Relief operations, as the name suggests, are expected to provide “relief” to the people in times of crisis, such as the pandemic caused by COVID-19. With the limited resources available especially in developing countries such as the Philippines, it is very important to strategically plan for the relief operation, and not simply give away cans of soda in the name of relief giving.

With the abusive utilization by beneficiaries of the relief funds, it would be helpful to give goods (instead of cash) that people need (e.g., rice as the staple food in the Philippines and other Southeast Asia countries). This is a strategic way to prevent wasting the money and ensure that people are able to eat amidst the community quarantine.

Coordination amongst different government and non-government units must be a major consideration. In addition to some technological platforms now in place (see COVID-19 Response Portal for LGUs), it would be helpful for a unitary government if the national government clarified between directives that requires national approval and those that LGUs can lawfully initiate locally At times of crisis like COVID-19, solid communication lines between government agencies can help ensure the safety of the public and maintain social cohesion.

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