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PHL may need to boost COVID-19 response if vaccination is delayed

By Beatrice M. Laforga, Reporter
and Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

THE Philippine government may have to roll out more policy measures and increase spending for its pandemic response if the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccination program is delayed, experts said.

Based on a policy database compiled by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Philippines’ COVID-19 response package is estimated at $21.645 billion or 5.9% of gross domestic product (GDP).

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines’ pandemic response package is the sixth-largest in terms of total amount but the fourth-smallest in terms of its size relative to economic output. To compare, Singapore’s $89-billion pandemic response package represents 25% of GDP, followed by Malaysia ($81 billion) and Thailand ($84 billion) with packages estimated at 23% and 16% of GDP, respectively.

“If you look at what other countries have done, taken into account their GDPs, the number of people affected, etc., it appears, at least in June (report), that the Philippine package appears to be a bit small,” Jesus Felipe, an advisor to the ADB’s Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department who oversees the bank’s database, said in an interview via Zoom on Dec. 23.

The ADB released a report last month assessing the pandemic response of its 68 member countries using available data as of June. The ADB had previously noted that the size of the pandemic response is not a reliable indicator of its effectiveness.

The lender is set to release a second issue of the report using updated data and more extensive analysis by April, Mr. Felipe said.

“A bigger stimulus package would have accelerated the pace of economic recovery but our economic managers faced tough fiscal choices that had seemingly equal negative trade-offs,” Cid L. Terosa, senior economist at the University of Asia and the Pacific, said in an e-mail.

Data from the Budget department showed the Philippine government spent P500 billion as of Dec. 19 for its COVID-19 response. Economic managers stood firm that the budget deficit for full-year 2020 should only reach up to 7.6% of GDP.

Wary of continuous spending, governments around the world are relying on a widely administered COVID-19 vaccine to help their economies recover this year, Mr. Felipe said.

The United States and Europe have already started mass vaccination programs.

For the Philippines, where the first vaccines may arrive later this year, he said the government may need to boost its COVID-19 spending again to help the economy recover while waiting for vaccinations to begin.

“If there is no vaccine until well into 2021 and the economy does not recover, will the government do it (spend more)? I do not know. Should they do it? Probably yes because the economy will not move out of this phase and get it fully to the recovery period,” Mr. Felipe said.

Mr. Terosa said stimulus measures should continue to be implemented to drive economic recovery, while maximizing available funds and financing from foreign lenders.

“The government should continue to roll out stimulus measures within its available fiscal space. The simultaneous implementation of stimulus measures with the most resounding economic ripple effects has to be staunchly carried through,” he said.

The government targets to provide free COVID-19 vaccines to 60 million Filipinos with a budget of P73 billion for its mass vaccination program. The Health department is planning to vaccinate up to 25 million people this year, although the purchase of vaccines have faced delays.

The Finance department is tapping multilateral lenders to fund the vaccination drive — $325 million from the ADB and another $300 million from the World Bank.

“Although the country’s recovery relative to its ASEAN peers can be considered slow, it is a cautious rehabilitation that may yield a brighter medium to long-term economic windfall… The quarantine measures and long lockdowns have severely strangled the domestic economy, but they primed the country and her citizens to patiently adjust and effectively adapt to possible future bursts of infections. The harsh sacrifices that the country made can make the economy and its agents more creative, nimble, and resilient moving forward,” said Mr. Terosa.

Meanwhile, a local think tank urged the government to become more transparent in the use of public funds to address the coronavirus pandemic.

With the massive amount spent for the country’s pandemic response, the government is obliged to show how public funds have been utilized and allocated, Victor Andres C. Manhit, President of StratBase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies, told BusinessWorld via Facebook messenger on Sunday.

Mr. Manhit said there has been a lack of transparency and accountability in the handling of public funds “whether that was from emergency procurement procedures or access to information processes.”

“Lack of transparency combined with discretion allows opportunistic political actors to channel public funds for private gain, creating a threat to the rule of law — all the more troubling as the May 2022 presidential election is fast approaching,” he said.

Mr. Manhit said the government should be able to “move in cooperation” with civil society organizations (CSO), research institutions, academics, and the citizens at large to help develop mechanisms that can weather “these political pressures even during a future emergency.”

Commission on Audit (CoA) Chair Michael G. Aguinaldo earlier said CSO members authorized as citizen-auditors will perform auditing and related work using digital technology to help the agency in auditing the funds used for pandemic recovery.

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