FROM THE beginning, news reports understandably fixed their attention on the spread of the disease with the counts of cases and the fatalities. But the lack of discussion about the economy began to press on the public mind as the disruption of normal activities made more visible the rising poverty among communities. Displaced jeepney and pedicab drivers were forced to beg on the streets, joining many who made their living in the informal sector whose sources of income were gone.
The two pieces of legislation (Bayanihan to Heal as One/Bayanihan 1 and Bayanihan to Recover as One/ Bayanihan 2) to enable the administration to take action against the various problems raised by the pandemic did not seem to have achieved much. And yet, there was little heard or seen in the news to inquire about the poor results and there was little pressure for an accounting of the fresh funds provided by Congress. The silence on this lack of accountability was a scandal in itself.
Policy makers had little to say about the humanitarian crisis affecting the population, and how the current hunger and malnutrition would afflict generations to come. Feeding programs were undertaken by many in the private sector. But there was no discussion to set the agenda about what to do for the long-term.
Media did not attempt to scrutinize in the broadest ways the disbursement of PHP380 billion COVID-19 response and relief fund as provided for by Bayanihan 1. The law required the president to report weekly budget allocations and utilization of funds. But these were never fully discussed. For their part, the media uploaded on their respective platforms copies of these documents. Later, the president would claim that there was no longer any money for social amelioration, but did not bother to present even the most general form of accounting.
The president had been candid about his lack of economic orientation and would have probably dismissed these questions if asked. What about other officials? What about Congress whose responsibility included oversight of the funds they released for the emergency? Where was the government that should have done the work of accounting how the people’s money had been spent?
Media’s lack of interest in the resignation of NEDA Secretary Ernesto Pernia on April 17 was also telling. Pernia had submitted plans for economic recovery for the IATF to discuss. But these were ignored; media also showed little interest in examining Pernia’s three-phase economic recovery plan.
By the end of January 2020, the Philippines recorded the first cases of the virus affecting Chinese tourists in Boracay. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez made public his assurance and confidence that the Philippine economy was “big enough” to withstand a recession.
In April, as cases continued to rise, Dominguez expressed his fears of “negative growth” for the economy. On August 6, the Philippine Statistics Authority Development Budget Coordination Committee which clustered finance and economic agencies announced the country’s first recession in three decades. The GDP plunged by a record 16.5 percent in the second quarter of 2020. But instead of addressing this slump, economic managers drummed up claims of accomplishments, such as the country’s “good credit rating,” increased spending through big-ticket infrastructure projects and the social amelioration program.
Media were content to let the government steer the discussion. For those who had lost confidence in what officials had to say, the counter-narratives had to be pieced from blogs, opinion pieces and interviews in public affairs programs and online reports.
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“The administration’s weak response to the economic crisis was apparent on March 12 when the president announced the month-long community quarantine in Metro Manila…Other than his appeal for assistance from the private sector, the president did not mention the economy. Some reports noted how he offered to pay the rent of cash-strapped tenants and stand as guarantor for small businesses.” |The Pandemic’s economic fallout
“In general, media reports carried the administration’s message that the recession was an inevitable fallout from the pandemic. And as finance and trade officials did not say anything concrete about what to expect, there was also little in the news that could help Filipinos assess what the future holds for them” | Media follow government lead in reporting historic economic recession