Trina Alejandra Firmalo-Fabic, a town mayor in the Philippines, was surprised when President Rodrigo Duterte announced on March 16 that he would lock down the entire island of Luzon. The one-month lockdown aims to stem the rising cases of COVID-19 infection in the Southeast Asian country.
The directive, however, worried Fabic, the 38-year-old mayor of Odiongan. The coastal town is in the province of Romblon, more than 200 kilometers south of the Philippine capital, Manila. Most of its 45,000 residents rely on fishing and farming for their livelihoods and get basic supplies through the ferries that dock in its port.
But the lockdown requires that everyone in Luzon – home to roughly half of the country’s 105 million population – stays at home and practices social distancing. And this created a dilemma for Fabic and the hundreds of local officials across Luzon’s 38 provinces: how to keep their residents safe without depriving them of their livelihoods and daily needs?
“We are dealing with a public health emergency alongside an economic conundrum that no one is prepared for,” Fabic told China Daily. “On a day to day basis, we try to make sound decisions synchronized with national and provincial policies while taking into account the local context and public interest.”
Fabic consulted Odiongan’s residents and came up with programs to help them cope with the lockdown.
To ensure that the housebound residents have what they need and still have the means to earn, Fabic commissioned local seamstresses to sew face masks and personal protective equipment. She also bought vegetables, fish and chicken from local farmers and fishermen. The masks and food were later distributed to residents.
Fabic enforced a curfew and set up checkpoints to restrict movement. She deployed shuttles to ferry healthcare workers and other front-liners, as public transportation is banned. Also, Fabic uses social media for daily updates and public consultation.
Fabic’s policies, while praiseworthy, are not unique. In the two weeks since Duterte put Luzon under “enhanced community quarantine”, local officials have learned to think outside the box, coming up with programs that are inexpensive, simple to implement, and responsive to the unique needs of their local communities.
“These local executives have been notable for trying to go beyond that basic mandate,” said Herman Joseph Kraft, associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines.
Speaking with China Daily, Kraft stressed that local executives are expected to be enforcers of the lockdown. He cited the Local Government Code of 1991 which decentralized the national government’s duties and empowered local governments.
He said one of these duties is the provision of healthcare services – a crucial responsibility in light of the virus outbreak. Kraft said local executives “should be doing more than just waiting to implement national policies”.
In the capital region of Metro Manila, some city mayors have shown they are indeed frontline strategists in the fight against the spread of COVID-19.
Marcelino Teodoro, mayor of Marikina city, responded to the clamor for mass testing by converting a government building into a testing center. Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso persuaded hoteliers to give free lodging to healthcare workers so that they can get enough rest after long hours of duty. Rexlon Gatchalian, mayor of Valenzuela city, automated contact-tracing procedures to prevent local transmission.
Local executives also enforced measures that can help residents cope with unintended consequences of the lockdown.
For example, to keep their local economies humming, Edwin Hamor, mayor of Casiguran town in Sorsogon province, and Emerson Pascual, mayor of Gapan town in the province of Nueva Ecija, bought local produce to use as part of relief packages distributed to residents.
In the country’s financial district, Makati City Mayor Mar-len Abigail Binay-Campos extended cash assistance to the city’s nearly 6,000 tricycle drivers as they have lost their daily income following the lockdown.
Ruben Carlo Asuncion, chief economist at Union Bank of the Philippines, said these local executives manage to craft appropriate policies because they listen to their constituents.
They have “used social media well in propagating and advancing their quarantine plans and solutions, and the feedback of people in this age of social media is magnified a thousand fold,” Asuncion told China Daily.
This is evident in the case of Victor Maria Regis Sotto, mayor of Pasig city in Metro Manila. Using Facebook and Twitter, Sotto conducts daily consultations with the residents. He then uses the feedback to draft appropriate policies.
For example, to stop panic buying and hoarding, Sotto enforced an ordinance that limits the amount of food and other basic necessities a person can buy in a day. To minimize crowds in wet markets, Sotto dispatched trucks so that vendors can sell via mobile markets. He also assigned one hotel as a quarantine facility so that people do not have to live at home, and possibly infect their families, while under quarantine.
“Good governance is about having great communication. Channels should be clear and plans are outlined and (implemented) accordingly,” Asuncion said.
He said measures enforced by these executives will, in the end, mitigate the impact of the outbreak on both the local and national economies.
Failing to flatten the curve would not only lead to “thousands of deaths, but it also means a deeper damage to the economy that has sustained the nation so far. We don’t want to fail. We can’t fail,” Asuncion said.
By Prime Sarmiento