Gov’t pushes to reopen bigger part of economy
With the number of COVID-19 infections nationwide now manageable, it is high time to resume more economic activities to revive consumer confidence and jump-start a rebound from the pandemic-induced recession, the country’s chief economist said on Wednesday.
In particular, Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua told the Inquirer Business section-led webinar titled “Revitalizing the Philippine economy” that the government might have to eventually allow face-to-face or hybrid classes in areas with low cases, expand the age limits for younger and older people currently restricted from leaving their homes as well as ensure availability of more mass transportation options and at bigger capacity.
“The economy is strong enough to recover if we enable it to do so. Unfortunately, we restrict the economy from opening up because of our fear of the virus,” said Chua, who heads the state planning agency National Economic and Development Authority (Neda).
Chua noted that while the country struggled to contain the virus at the onset of the pandemic, there had been “significant progress on the health side” at present.
The Neda chief pointed out that out of the more than 441,000 cumulative COVID-19 cases recorded nationwide to date, only about 25,000 were active cases, with the majority of those who got infected having recovered and only 8.3 percent of them needing hospitalization.
“And the good news is we have invested a lot on hospital care—we have 22,667 COVID-19 beds and only 35 percent of that was occupied as of last week,” Chua said.
With the government’s strategy now to fight COVID-19 risks and not avoid them, Chua said the economy needed to be further opened up in order to address the other socioeconomic ills wrought by the pandemic—high unemployment, the temporary increase in poverty and other diseases other than the coronavirus, which had been taking a toll on mental and physical health of more Filipinos, noting that 96 percent of the 390,000 deaths year-to-date as of September were not due to the virus.
“One thing we noticed is that our public transport over the months did not catch up as we opened the economy and that is why we are pursuing this opening, beginning with the one-seat-apart or with barriers in public transport to separate passengers so that we can match the demand and the supply” of workers needed to resume businesses, Chua said.
As of October, 53 percent of Metro Manila’s public transportation capacity already resumed, Chua said, and they expected additional improvement last month and this month while the transport sector adhered to minimum health standards.
Chua also urged returning to classes held in school premises instead of just online or virtually as most classes were right now, which had been proven to be a challenge for many students, teachers and parents alike.
“I think we have to begin considering the gradual opening of schools perhaps not immediately, but gradually allow face-to-face or hybrid in the lowest risk areas” such as the provinces currently under the less stringent modified general community quarantine or those without cases for weeks or months, Chua said.
“What is at stake here is the education of our children and the future productivity of our country if they do not catch up,” the Neda chief pointed out.
Chua added that the government was looking at relaxing the age group covered by restrictions further so long as they followed the minimum health standard.
For Chua, there should no longer be a revert to stricter quarantine. “Instead of having entire regions or provinces in quarantines, we can consider localized lockdowns.”
By sustaining the incremental opening of the economy, Chua expressed optimism that the gross domestic product (GDP) would recover from its projected 8.5-9.5 percent recession this year to a growth of 6.5-7.5 percent next year and 8-10 percent in 2022.
Chua said the Philippine economy was expected to return to prepandemic GDP levels by mid-2022.
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