With more than 130 million COVID-19 cases globally, the virus has spread everywhere, including different parts of Philippines. With cases rising in urban areas like Metro Manila, many had thought other regions with recorded low cases will be spared. A year later, we see how regions like BARMM - with fewer COVID-19 cases - are still equally affected by the indirect consequences, both to the economy and the efforts to contain the virus, including higher poverty and food insecurity, lower life expectancy, less education, and more child death.
For BARMM, lockdowns and quarantines have caused work stoppages, reduced working hours and unemployment, hitting those in the informal sector – predominantly women – the hardest. Reduction in income has led to difficulty in accessing food, education, and healthcare. Almost 40% of respondents in a UNDP survey have family members dropping out of school. 62% felt that access to hospitals became more difficult. In addition to socioeconomic conditions, the pandemic has affected the peace and transition process. Together with pressures to social, economic, and political dynamics in BARMM, the COVID-19 crisis is aggravating existing and emerging vulnerabilities in the region.
Fortunately, the BARMM government has responded swiftly, pivoting its resources and adopting a ‘Whole-of-Government’ approach, with fewer cases as a result. In a recent UNDP assessment of the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, this speedy support from the regional government to communities has created a sense of optimism and strengthened trust between the government and citizens. While time will tell if the government will maintain this favorable outlook, one thing is certain - COVID-19 is shaping up a new social contract in BARMM, as in many other parts of the world.
By supporting equal and inclusive services, we can jointly strengthen that trust - a fundamental element for mobilizing society-wide efforts to combat the virus and lay the foundations for a strong recovery. Our report indicated that the region has the potential to recover by 2022 with an average regional GDP growth rate of 7-8%.
Sadly, with this lingering crisis and limited capacity for local government to respond and recover, unless the necessary human and financial resources are brought together through effective partnerships, it is likely that the most vulnerable will be left behind or this trajectory will not be met.
To achieve this goal, these partnerships must happen.
Now more than ever, the COVID-19 crisis calls for an acceleration of the ‘‘Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus,” a common phrase in government, UN and aid sectors. Intended to bring together the efforts of many, it is a concept that aims to address people’s vulnerability before, during and after crises. Naturally, a more coherent approach ensures that immediate needs are met at the same time, ensuring longer-term investments like infrastructure development.
By doing this, we can address urgent needs and underlying causes of conflict and vulnerability, like poverty, inequality, and limited basic services. It also has a better chance of reducing the impact of recurrent shocks and supporting the peace that is so essential for sustainable recovery and long-term development.
This would involve rethinking finance mechanisms from government, partners and the private sector, as well as new ways of working, the expertise needed, and leveraging the Filipino diaspora - and reflecting on how to develop and implement the roadmap for BARMM’s recovery.
While government plays a major role in both the response and recovery, community engagement is key in the context of BARMM, whether to address the immediate health threat or to support and rebuild livelihoods. UNDP has developed tools to enhance citizens participation, including youth, women, informal workers, and marginalized groups. Effective use of such tools in the response and well into the recovery phase could help in the designing, implementation, and monitoring of programs. Experiences from other countries show that community engagement and effective communication are critical as the region charts its pathway out of the COVID-19 crisis.
Regardless of the efforts made, we know the coming months and years will be acutely challenging, especially in regions like BARMM. So, we must match the challenging situation with exceptional action. Jointly marshalling large public and private investments in high productivity sectors as well as health and social protection spaces is just one of the steps we must take.
While the pandemic has caused one of the greatest disruptions of all time, the recovery effort offers a unique opportunity to change the course of development in BARMM towards a human-centered, greener future, and allow the region to address inequalities that were prevailing before the pandemic.
Dr. Selva Ramachandran is the UNDP Philippines Resident Representative.