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Covid and local governance

Covid’s a pandemic; it’s global. But addressing it is local. Multilateral organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) give out an international picture of it. National governments craft strategies and programs to address it within their countries’ capacities. But it’s local governments (LGUs) that actually shepherd and hold the hands of individuals and households to navigate and survive this pandemic.

People know it. In crises, everyone looks for the nearest lifejacket, not distant lifeboats; for the nearest coach to tell them what to do, not distant experts. Covid surfaced the crucial place of LGUs when people are in distress. It’s the LGUs that they see giving them frontline public services and leadership, not much the national government. They may want to know what the national government is saying, but what matters more to them is what their LGUs are doing.

It’s not what the President and his Cabinet are planning; it’s the rice, canned goods, and noodles they’re getting from their LGUs that make them survive. It’s not the intentions of the national government that move them; it’s the quarantine and other rules and regulations of their LGUs that’s real to them.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from Covid, it’s that pandemics are not just public health issues; they’re governance issues. Addressing them requires a singular package of coordinated actions involving epidemiological, social, and political measures. Failure in one makes the pandemic win.

In a dramatic way, Covid suddenly reversed the people’s perceptions of the center-periphery divides of national and local governments. Before Covid, decisions of the former hugged people’s attention. National leaders were poster personalities of Government. LGUs were viewed as largely shadowed by the umbrella of the national. Until Covid. It’s now reversed. LGUs have become the more “existential reality” of people’s idea of Government and national agencies have moved toward the periphery. Of course, decisions on national quarantines regulations were made by the national government but it’s LGUs that executed them.

The national government decide on broad strategies to ensure adequate food supplies and secure the economy, but to us in local communities, what mattered more – and which helped us survive the pandemic – were the actions of our Province, Cities, and Municipalities.

A colleague, Ian Canlas of La Carlota, told me of Negros Occidental’s three-pronged approach for containing covid: (1) putting up local care centers in support of the provincial centers; (2) quick deployment of technology to create a data base of returning locally stranded individuals (LSIs) and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and for quicker contact tracing; and (3 identification of “hot zones” of areas identified as having rogue LSIs and OFWs.

Hinobaan created temporary shelters for boat crews of large vessels travelling across islands so that they need not go home to their families in between voyages. Sipalay and Kabankalan Cities beefed up barangay markets so that residents need not flock to their city market centers and create congestions that more quickly spread Covid. These are actions that help people.

One other thing: our LGUs tolerated the creative ways that our people devised to adapt to Covid. In the face of mobility restrictions, they left untouched local initiatives to engage in barter and eCommerce, neighbors helping neighbors, and private businesses helping provide medical and protective supplies to our hospitals. These mattered to our people and made LGUs a more pleasant face of governance than the national government. This, especially when they saw that, in contrast, the national government was imposing what seemed roadblocks to people’s initiatives to survive.

Instead of helping, DTI wanted to register and tax local barters (which has since been “clarified” and rescinded but not before eroding public sympathy for the national government). Instead of creating more jobs to jumpstart the economy, Congress closed down a big employer (and not waiting for later if in fact it feels compelled to do so) when the economy was contracting by -2 to -3.4 percent and job losses are approaching 5 million.

In turn, Covid became a large and powerful lens for people to see the strengths and weaknesses of our LGUs. They saw the determination to control infections, beef up hospital supplies, set up quarantine centers, keep the public informed of cases, and take measures to contain people’s movements to within safe levels. But they also saw weaknesses and failures. Some saw a bit of over eagerness of a few local politicians to relish on their escalated power to control people’s movements.

There’ve been reports of entry protocols into the province not being uniformly enforced; of illicit entries into the province; of uneven, non-transparent, and unpredictable distribution of government assistance; of widespread failure in physical distancing; and of government leaders not coordinating their actions.

But over-all, when all noise is filtered out and “grains separated from chaff”, we could be thankful. Our local Covid spread has been low compared to most other similarly sized areas and populations. I get it that one person contracting the disease is bad, but we’re much less bad than many places in the country; we have to grant ourselves that.

Our comparably low cases could have been because we’re an archipelago and travel across islands in our country is more easily controllable. Or because we had generally good public compliance to recommended health measures like not going to hospitals unless very necessary, keeping ourselves at home, and wearing masks. (The WHO noted that mask wearing among Filipinos is about 92% as against only 50% in the US.) There were many violators for sure, which upset us, but the general picture is that we did better.

Could we have done even better? What if we had our One Negros Region? What would have been our additional successes if we had an island-wide local governance to ensure a coordinated containment of the virus?*

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January 2021

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