Manila Times


  • Ratification of RCEP critical to economic recovery

    OVER the weekend, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon urged members of both houses of Congress to work quickly to pass vital measures in the few remaining legislative days left before the long preelection recess. This was certainly a good call on Drilon's part, but among the measures he listed on lawmakers' critical "to-do list," he omitted the most important one: Senate ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which went into effect on January 1.

    The Philippines has signed the broad trade and economic cooperation pact, but without Senate ratification, it is not yet formally a part of RCEP and will not be until the latter half of the year at the earliest. Without participation in the RCEP, several of the other measures highlighted by Drilon will have far less positive impact on the country's economic recovery.

    The RCEP is a free trade agreement (FTA) between the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and the Asean's six major FTA partners Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. The main purpose of the RCEP is to harmonize the number of existing bilateral FTAs among the signatory nations; when fully in force, the RCEP will cover 2.3 billion people or about 30 percent of the world's population, contribute $25.8 trillion to global gross domestic product (GDP), and account for over a quarter of global trade in goods and services and 31 percent of global foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows, according to data from the World Bank.

    In terms of its impact on the Philippines, the RCEP could increase national GDP by as much as 2 percent. The agreement expands opportunities to attract new foreign investment as well expanding access to overseas markets for Philippine goods and services, particularly for small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Even under the best of circumstances, it would be foolhardy for the Philippines not to be a part of the RCEP; with the economic strain caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it is absolutely critical that it is.

    Senate's priorities

    The Senate, however, evidently has other priorities. Among the measures cited by Senator Drilon were the proposed amendments to the Public Services Act, which would clarify the definition of public utilities and permit more foreign investment in these sectors. Drilon also stressed the need to pass the amended Retail Trade Act (a bill he authored), which would lower the required paid-up capital for retail enterprises from the current P25 million to P2.5 million. Among other matters being prioritized include the proposed SIM Card Registration Act, an act that would provide for the non-expiration of licenses and franchises, and the proposed Vaporized Nicotine Products (Vape) Regulation Act, which is currently in bicameral committee to work out differences between the versions passed by the House and the Senate.

    Without the RCEP, the Public Services Act and Retail Trade Act lose much of their relevance, as they are primarily intended to attract foreign investment. Investors will be more likely to look elsewhere among the countries that have already ratified the trade pact (Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Japan, Laos, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and, as of February 1, South Korea) given the advantages the RCEP provides. Other laws that are considered "vital" can either wait or should be dropped entirely. For example, the SIM Card Registration Act, which is basically a good idea, has a number of excessively intrusive and probably unnecessary provisions and should be reassessed. The Vape Law, on the other hand, has been railroaded through the legislature despite strong condemnation from the Department of Health and more than 50 physicians' groups and simply should not be given any more time and attention.

    As of today, there are only eight session days left before Congress adjourns until July. That limited amount of time should be used for measures that have the broadest positive impact on the country and serve to accelerate the economic recovery from the pandemic. The only measure that fits that description is the ratification of the RCEP.

  • Resume in-person classes, but with caution

    THE Department of Education (DepEd) has ordered all online classes in Metro Manila suspended for a week "to ease the health burden" on students and teachers, following the new swarm of coronavirus cases.

    Education is just one of the many sectors that have been reeling from the onslaught of Omicron on their workforce. The DepEd reports that scores of teachers have called in sick, and without the "health break," many more could fall ill.

    The disruption in the teaching process is a big letdown for education officials, who had been looking forward to a return to in-person classes early this year.

    Last November, the DepEd allowed students in about 100 public and private schools to return to their classrooms in areas where the risk of Covid infection was low. The plan was to phase in more actual classes as the threat of the virus waned.

    The pilot classes were just gaining momentum when the Omicron-fueled surge struck in December. The experiment was abruptly called off, but soon, even online study sessions were disrupted as more teachers caught the virus.

    The pandemic forced Philippine schools to shut down in March 2020. Now, we're one of the countries left that have not fully reopened their educational institutions and continue to rely on a "blended" system, anchored on virtual classes. Education experts, however, have questioned the wisdom of depriving children of a proper school environment. A Unicef official noted: "With every day that goes by, children unable to access in-person schooling fall further and further behind with the most marginalized paying the heaviest price."

    School is where young learners interact with their peers, and denying them this interaction is depriving them of a critical aspect of childhood.

    Students "miss the experience and structure of school and the place-based nature of learning," one study found.

    According to other studies, online schooling does not appeal to students in poorer households, many of whom have to deal with behavioral and emotional issues at home.

    Apparently realizing that virtual classes are not an ideal substitute for the real thing, Education Secretary Leonor Briones had been lobbying hard for a gradual return to face-to-face classroom teaching. She finally got her way in November, but the transition was interrupted after just a few weeks by Omicron.

    Vaccinate kids first

    But another, perhaps even bigger, concern could complicate efforts to bring back in-person schooling.

    An uptick of Omicron infections among children has been reported in many parts of the world, including the United States. The seven-day average of daily hospitalizations for children in the US in the last week of December was 58 percent higher than in the past week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    The cases are expected to climb faster when schools reopen after the winter holiday.

    A spike in Omicron cases among children here is not unlikely, and health authorities must be prepared to deal with it. The risk of the virus spreading among learners, who will be attending in-person classes once they resume, must be taken seriously.

    The DepEd must guarantee that stricter Covid-mitigation measures are in place before classrooms reopen. "No country in the world has put out such a stringent and strict requirement for face-to-face classes," Secretary Briones said at the launch of pilot classes in November.

    Omicron, however, could require a more robust response, considering its potency.

    Experts allay anxieties that in-person classes could become super spreaders. As long as the students wear masks and the classrooms are well-ventilated, the risk of contamination among classmates is manageable, they say.

    But without doubt, the best way to protect schoolchildren from the virus is to get them vaccinated. The government started inoculating 12-to-17-year-olds late last year, but it has yet to start jabbing the 13.5 million children aged 5 to 11 years because of the delay in issuing an emergency use authority for a pediatric vaccine. The approved vaccine, manufactured by Pfizer, is not expected to be rolled out before February at the earliest.

    Jab the children first before allowing them back to their classrooms.

  • Ban on child marriage helps address poverty

    IN signing the act prohibiting child marriage, President Rodrigo Duterte addresses two social problems — gender inequality and poverty. In the past, he has been criticized for allegedly being misogynistic and anti-poor, but his adoption of Republic Act (RA) 11596 not only contradicts that portrayal, but also earns him some praise.

    The Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) hailed it as a "landmark law." Its executive director, Kristine Rosary Yuzon-Chavez, said in a statement: "The law finally recognizes child marriage as a crime across the Philippines. It addresses legal gaps that allow this practice that threatens the health, well-being and development of children. With this enactment, we can protect girls from being trapped in unwanted marriage, early pregnancy, violence and other violations to their human rights and dignity."

    One in six Filipino girls get married before reaching 18 years old, according to PCW. That makes the Philippines 12th in the world in the frequency of child marriages or unions.

    In developing countries, some 20,000 girls younger than 18 give birth daily, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF). About 90 percent of those childbirths occur within a marriage or union.

    Yearly, about 3 million girls between 15- and 19-years-old resort to unsafe abortions, the UNPF added. Tens of thousands of girls in that age bracket die from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, making those the leading causes of death for females in that age group.

    However, not everyone was pleased with RA 11596, which will be enforced in a couple of months after the implementing rules and regulations are finalized and published. Filipino Muslims, who are part of Mr. Duterte's political base, asked to defer the enactment. They argued that Islam sets no age requirement for marriage and that it would be hard to change that old custom.

    Of course, culture and traditions deserve respect, but there ought to be distinctions made between what is allowed and what should be done. Just because a religion allows something does not mean that it is encouraging it.

    Besides, societies should embrace some changes, particularly when the benefits are so clear as in this case. And when the time comes, everyone, regardless of their religion, should respect state law, which punishes child marriage with a fine of at least P40,000 and imprisonment of up to 12 years.

    Eradicating poverty

    In helping prevent pregnancy among adolescents, RA 11596 also has development benefits.

    The Population Commission, in its statement, said, "Marriages involving minors will also expose them to further unintended pregnancies, lead them to produce families and unions that are ill-prepared to face the challenges of rearing children, and lock them into the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty."

    The UNPF says something similar. It explained that when girls become pregnant, they are likely to drop out of school, jeopardizing their economic prospects and excluding them from other opportunities. "By contrast, girls who remain in school are better prepared for jobs, livelihoods and life's other transitions."

    The new law is also consistent with the government's program to end extreme poverty by 2040. Economic managers aimed to lift some 6 million Filipinos out of poverty by 2022, an objective that was realized early in 2018.

    Then, Covid-19 happened. Nearly 4 million Filipinos fell back into poverty by the first half of 2021 from the same period in 2018. With only months remaining in President Duterte's six-year term, his program to fight poverty was in peril.

    Seemingly undaunted, however, Economic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), said this in a statement last December: "In the final months of the Duterte administration, we will vigorously pursue the economy's full recovery to restore jobs and bring more people out of poverty."

    He added that the government programs, while understandably focused on containing Covid-19 and recovery from its economic impact, will not leave anyone behind. The enactment of RA 11596 ensures that adolescent girls are included.

    Even with Covid-19 still looming, NEDA remains optimistic about an early recovery. Regardless of political affiliation, every Filipino should back the government on that.

  • F. Sionil Jose was unafraid of truth

    REMEMBERING National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose should not be like having a sense of the last-song syndrome. Besides one of his final public comments, he was known as a consequential and prolific writer, having authored more than 35 books. Few other Filipino authors are so accomplished that they merit mention in international news or an obituary in The New York Times.

    Still, some remember Mr. Jose for his social media post not long ago. He stung people when he said Maria Ressa did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded in recognition of her contributions to journalism.

    Perhaps in defense of the late Mr. Jose, a columnist from another daily said the National Artist should be instead remembered for his body of work, for mentoring other writers and even for his famous bookstore, Solidaridad. That columnist need not make excuses for Mr. Jose, who deserved praise for his courage to express an unpopular opinion. Some might even argue that he spoke the truth.

    The admirers of Ms. Ressa should have respected Mr. Jose's comments if they were believers in free speech. That pillar in journalism is best described in a quote from Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer who wrote under the pseudonym SG Tallentyre and who was known for her biography of Voltaire. She famously said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

    Those who disapproved of Mr. Jose's comments ought to reflect on that quote. They should have defended his right to express his opinion no matter how unpopular or politically incorrect it may have been for them. Of course, this applies if they actually grasped why Ms. Ressa was awarded a Nobel.

    True danger

    To recap, the contentious point among some Filipinos has to do with Ms. Ressa's poor portrayal of the Philippines that some argue as self-serving. Mr. Jose posted, "Philippine Press is alive and well and not because of Maria Ressa." As if to drive the dagger deeper, he added, "No writer is in jail. There is no censorship. [President Rodrigo] Duterte hasn't closed a single newspaper or radio station. The closure of ABS-CBN was made by Congress, which did not renew the ABS-CBN franchise."

    Naturally, Ms. Ressa has a different opinion, and she is certainly entitled to that. But in her speech at a Nobel function, she herself weakened her merits in mentioning that more lawyers have been killed in the Philippines than journalists. Curiously, no one seems to be handing out awards for officers of the court.

    Ms. Ressa's own Rappler reported that 65 lawyers, prosecutors and judges had been killed during President Duterte's term as of Sept. 15, 2021. In the same period, 22 journalists had been killed, the website added. But other sources cited a lower figure for journalists, including Unesco or United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

    Around the region, we see evidence supporting Mr. Jose's point of view. In Hong Kong, journalists are being arrested in increasing numbers. In strife-torn Myanmar, journalists covering protests risk getting shot by soldiers or the police. In Thailand, criticizing the monarchy is a crime. And elsewhere in Southeast Asia, laws mislabeled as national security are used to suppress media.

    Against that backdrop, the Philippines actually shines. Naturally, Filipino journalists are not without problems. The Manila Times, for instance, was slapped with more libel cases during this administration than in the past. And undeniably, journalists have died.

    That does not make the Philippines, however, the most dangerous country for journalists. That unfortunate distinction belongs to Mexico, according to the International Press Institute. Afghanistan was next on its list, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Does the ranking qualify the Philippines as safe for journalists? Not exactly. But the statistics suggest that other professionals have it worse. So, what is the truth? Criminality seems to be the problem.

    Unlike lawyers and other crime victims, journalists have a bully pulpit. And if only Mr. Jose were alive, he might have challenged that. The fact that he could have would underscore the point.

  • Govt must make better use of restrictions on unvaccinated people

    THE harsh restrictions imposed by the government on the movement of unvaccinated people in response to the massive surge in Covid-19 infections have been bitterly condemned by critics as "anti-poor" and "anti-people," but as unpleasant and inconvenient as they may be, they are entirely justified by current medical evidence. We are concerned, however, that the restrictions as currently designed and enforced are neither humane nor make efficient use of the opportunity they provide to bring the pandemic under control.

    Under Alert Level 3, which has been declared in Metro Manila and several other parts of the country, persons who are not fully vaccinated are prohibited from using public transportation, entering most places of business, or otherwise leaving their homes for all but the most essential purposes.

    Although it can be debated whether or not many of the edicts of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases are actually as "science-based" as claimed, the virtual lockdown of unvaccinated individuals is beyond doubt.

    Research from various institutions, among them Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago, has confirmed that so-called "herd immunity" through infection or exposure to the coronavirus is impossible. According to the research, the coronavirus kills the body's T-cells at a rate slightly higher than the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Thus, people who become infected with the coronavirus are left with a much higher risk of a subsequent infection, and could possibly be at higher risk of other types of infections, although the research on this latter problem is not quite clear.

    The only defense against this is vaccination. By triggering the body's immune response, the vaccine in a sense serves as a set of instructions for the body to create more T-cells that can target the coronavirus, hopefully enough that a future infection is eliminated without causing serious illness. It is therefore imperative that everyone be vaccinated, to prevent or reduce the spread of Covid-19 and reduce individuals' risk of serious illness or death in the short term, and to reduce a potentially enormous burden on the health system and quality of life in the long term.

    Unvaccinated people are more likely to contract a serious illness and spread the infection to others, so imposing restrictions to limit their contact with other people is a necessity. It defeats, however, the general objective of protecting their well-being if those restrictions cause them other hardships in meeting their basic needs. Likewise, making too many exceptions to allow the movement of unvaccinated people defeats the purpose of the restrictions to protect the community.

    One criticism raised against the restrictions is an excellent, illustrative point, and one that the government unfortunately has dismissed without an acceptable response: If the unvaccinated are not allowed to use public transportation, how are they to travel to vaccination sites to receive a vaccine?

    The solution has been obvious for as long as vaccines have been available but has been resisted by the government because of its deeply misguided position that the responsibility and corresponding cost of managing the pandemic — obtaining (and paying for) testing, bearing the costs of isolation and treatment, traveling to vaccination sites — lies with the population rather than the government. If the government wants the restrictions to have a positive outcome, then it must take on the responsibility for providing the solutions to rectify the problem that made the restrictions necessary in the first place.

    That means, quite simply, bringing the solution to the people rather than expecting them to go find it: conducting door-to-door vaccination and testing where needed, and providing sufficient support to those whose livelihoods are compromised by the restrictions. Doing this would put people's minds at ease, and offer them a strong incentive to comply with the rules.

    According to statements just this week, there is no longer any issue with vaccine supply, and while the government may complain that the expense of pursuing a rational plan of action as described above is too high, that short-term cost pales in comparison to the cost of letting the pandemic and its potential long-term impacts on public health drag on for months or years.

Feed by Manila Times.