COVID-19, Global issues, Governance

Duterte: COVID-19 figures not so bad; Data say otherwise

As Metro Manila and other areas prepare to transition from modified ECQ to GCQ, Pres. Duterte said Thursday (May 28) that figures on COVID-19 in the Philippines are “all in all, not so bad”.

“The death toll is 921. So you would see that the Philippines has…ratio and proportion vis-a-vis with the population, we have a low rate of mortality here in this country,” Duterte claimed.

But latest available data (as of May 28) show otherwise.

In ASEAN, the Philippines actually has the worst record in terms of COVID-19 deaths in relation to the population. Eight Filipinos die of COVID-19 per 1 million people in the country. In comparison, the death rate in Brunei and Indonesia is five per million people. Malaysia and Singapore have four deaths per million; Thailand has one.

Overall, the Philippines is the 12th worst country in Asia in terms of COVID-19 deaths relative to population size (as of this posting). We’re the worst among all countries not just in Southeast Asia but also in South Asia and East Asia. (See data here)

Relative to the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, the Philippines ranks next to Indonesia in terms of the worst mortality rate in ASEAN. Indonesia has 6.10 deaths per 100 cases of COVID-19 while the Philippines has 5.91. Thailand has 1.86; Malaysia, 1.51; Brunei, 1.42; and Singapore, just 0.07. ###

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COVID-19, Governance, Human rights

PH has strictest lockdown in Asia, but ineffective vs. COVID-19

COVID-19 Strictest Lockdowns

If you feel that the COVID-19 lockdown being imposed by the Duterte regime is very strict, data say you are right. In fact, Duterte’s lockdown is the strictest in the region, even more rigid than that of his fellow authoritarian ruler Narendra Modi of India.

Compiling Google’s data on six categories of public mobility (retail and recreation; grocery stores and pharmacies; parks; transit stations; workplaces; and residential areas), the Nikkei Asian Review reported that the Philippines posted the largest average decline at 50.83 percent. With severe restrictions, the Duterte administration brought down public mobility by 85% in transit stations; by 79% in retail and recreation; and by 71% in workplaces. India ranked second with an average decline in public mobility by 47.83 percent.

But data also say these repressive lockdowns are not effective in the fight against COVID-19. While the Philippines and India are imposing very tight rules to restrict public mobility, they are still failing to bring down the number of new COVID-19 cases, which continue their upward trajectory after almost two months of lockdown.

On the contrary, countries that implemented less severe measures to control public mobility like Taiwan (2.16% decline in public mobility); South Korea (11.0%); Japan (13.83%); Vietnam (29.5%); and Thailand (31.66%) are significantly doing better in terms of bringing down the number of their daily new cases, as shown in the charts. (From EndCoronavirus.org)

Lockdowns are meant to hide the sorry state of public health systems and a convenient cover for leaders like Duterte (and Modi) to consolidate their authoritarian rule. The effective way to contain the spread of the new coronavirus are not repressive measures but reliable health and medical interventions, including testing.

Not surprisingly, there is an inverse correlation between testing and severity of lockdowns. Countries that conduct less tests tend to implement more severe lockdowns. India only conducts 1,042 tests per 1 million people while the Philippines conducts 1,379. Compare these figures to those countries that restricted public mobility less severely: Taiwan (2,790 tests per 1 million people); South Korea (12,773); Japan (1,502); Vietnam (2,681); and Thailand (3,264). (From Worldometer)

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COVID-19, Global issues, Governance

COVID-19 charts: PH death rate, testing capacity among worst in ASEAN

You know the Philippines is in deep shit when it has the highest number of #COVID19 deaths relative to the population and one of the worst testing capacities in the region, and yet all President Duterte could talk about are Martial Law and the NPA.

As of Apr. 24, the Philippines is averaging four COVID-19 deaths per 1 million people, the highest in ASEAN. This is twice the rate of Singapore and Indonesia, the top 2 countries in the region with the most number of novel coronavirus infections in absolute terms. (See Chart 1)

COVID-19 Deaths ASEAN for FB

Meanwhile, COVID-19 tests in the Philippines are among the lowest in ASEAN, pegged at 660 per 1 million people. Brunei is conducting more than 28,400 tests per million; Singapore, more than 16,200. Even Thailand is conducting thrice the number of tests that the Philippines does relative to its population. (See Chart 2)

COVID-19 Tests ASEAN for FB

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COVID-19, Global issues, Human rights

PH prisons: Ticking COVID-19 time bombs

The Philippines has the world’s most overcrowded prisons, according to the World Prison Brief (WPB). In Asia, a region where jammed detention facilities are ticking #COVID19 time bombs, Philippine prison overcrowding is twice as worse as Bangladesh, the distant second in the region in terms of prison overcrowding.

At the Quezon City jail, which is almost 5x overfilled, nine inmates and nine staff members are COVID-19 positive. In a Mandaluyong jail, 19 inmates and a staff are COVID-19 positive. In Cebu City, two inmates are infected. To be sure, there could be more.

Worse, Duterte’s Martial Law-like implementation of anti-COVID-19 measures is further overcrowding prison facilities unnecessarily. In the 35 days of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), the Philippine National Police (PNP) has arrested 31,363 people for violating government’s draconian lockdown rules.

Those arrested include urban poor who were demanding government aid; people who were forced to eke out a living despite the ECQ due to lack of government support; and even more outrageously, relief volunteers who were assisting poor communities cope with the crisis amid absence of government assistance.

The militarist mindset and approach of the Duterte regime are further exposing the public to greater danger. ###

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Governance, Human rights

The people are not afraid of you, Mr. President

 

COVID-19 protest

“WE’RE STARVING”. Residents of an urban poor community in Sitio San Roque in Quezon City trooped to EDSA on Apr. 1 amid strict lockdown rules due to COVID-19 to demand relief from government. (Photo: Yahoo! News)

President Duterte’s militarist response to the COVID-19 crisis took a turn for the worse on Tuesday, Apr. 1. In a televised address to the nation, he warned people seeking government relief amid the pandemic that he will “shoot them dead”. His unscheduled speech was apparently triggered by the protest of an urban poor community in Sitio San Roque demanding the government assistance promised to them when the capital region was put on enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).

The police arrested 21 of the protesting urban poor, adding to the more than 17,000 mostly poor people arrested nationwide for violating government’s lockdown policies. Compare the number of people arrested by the Philippine National Police (PNP) to the number of persons tested by the Department of Health (DOH) to combat COVID-19, which stood at just 3,938.

Filipinos have been enduring Duterte’s mindless and violent rants for four years now. But his latest incendiary rhetoric of ordering his police and soldiers to kill without hesitation those who violate his authoritarian ECQ hits differently for most. Locked down, deprived of mobility and productive work, starved and grappling with fear and uncertainty so much as with the unfamiliar virus as with government’s overall response to contain it, the people are enraged.

Duterte, as he is wont to do every time the legitimacy of his leadership is challenged, framed his virulent tirade as a warning to the Left, whose only desire according to the long ailing Chief Executive is to destabilize his government. He thought that this would justify his violent diatribe because the Left is supposedly an enemy of the state.

But the public felt it was not just addressed to the Left; or more likely they have already identified with the legitimate demands of the Left from this regime. Whichever is the case, Duterte is picking a fight not just against the politically organized sections of society, but all the people harshly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and government’s tyrannical response to a public health crisis.

The erstwhile apolitical, be they public personalities or one’s family and friends, are speaking up over Twitter or dinner against Duterte’s heartless verbal onslaught and its real implications to people’s welfare, especially those who are vulnerable to more hunger and poverty. The ECQ may have prevented public gatherings, but it also gave people more time online to discuss, share and process their collective thoughts and sentiments against the regime. It gave families and neighborhoods more time together to agree as a group how insufferable and contemptible the President and his men have become.

The ECQ meant to isolate the people from each other because of COVID-19 is ironically bringing more and more together in the conviction that the current state of the nation is no longer acceptable and tolerable. The people are not afraid of you, Mr. President. They are increasingly finding strength and courage from each other.

Duterte and his Defense and military people who are behind and in charge of the lockdown wrongly thought that their dastardly agenda of repressing dissent and democratic rights under the pretext of political stability has been made easier by the COVID-19 pandemic. On the contrary, the crisis and the government measures to supposedly address it in fact have heightened the conditions for greater social unrest and conflict, and for people to organize and take collective political actions.

The existing and emerging material conditions for these are unmistakable. Duterte’s own economic managers are forecasting an economic contraction of as much as 0.6% and job losses of as high as 1.8 million (one million in Luzon alone) this year due to the pandemic. Total economic losses could reach as much as PHP 1.36 trillion, with Luzon accounting for more than one trillion These estimates assume that the ECQ will only last for a month.

As the crisis is global, the economy could not rely on foreign exchange, including remittances from overseas Filipinos and foreign trade, to boost domestic consumption. The world economy may already be in a recession that some economists say is comparable in severity to the 2008-2009 Great Recession. Or it can even be worse. The International Labor Organization (ILO), for instance, estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic could wipe out up to 24.7 million jobs worldwide. For comparison, the global financial and economic crisis 10 years ago claimed 22 million jobs.

The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) expects remittances to drop by as much as PHP 8.5 billion this year due to the crisis. Many Filipino families will face hardship in the coming months, even long after the lockdown has been lifted. They include not just the urban and rural poor, who are the most exposed to the impacts of pandemics and economic declines, but even those who used to have the means to spend more. The pressure will further increase for government to provide social and economic services, something that the COVID-19 crisis has shown the regime is incapable of.

There is a disease spreading in government that is plunging the nation into chaos and death. It is not caused by the novel coronavirus, but by the old, familiar virus of authoritarianism. To get rid of this virus and heal as one, the country truly needs a bayanihan – to determinedly and strongly work together as a people in building a government and a nation that is truly theirs. In this battle, all the oppressed are frontliners.

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Economy, Governance

How People Economics can solve the transport crisis

✅ Develop the countryside, to ease the heavy congestion in urban centers like Metro Manila with the creation of longterm economic opportunities in the regions

✅ Build Filipino industries, to supply the needs of building and maintaining the country’s transport infrastructure as well as the needs of transport rehabilitation and modernization programs

✅ Protect the environment, by utilizing domestic renewable energy resources to power mass transport especially rail systems and funding the rehabilitation and modernization of current modes of public transport like jeepneys

✅ Uphold people’s rights and welfare, by ensuring the reliability, accessibility, efficiency, safety and affordability of public and mass transport at all times, which entails, among others, reversing the privatization of the county’s rail systems, toll roads, etc. and discarding the neoliberal user pays principle in mass transport

✅ Finance development, and ensure the mobilization of sufficient public resources to fund national, regional and local transport infrastructure development, including subsidizing their operation and maintenance

✅ Strive for sovereignty and independence, because those mentioned above will not be possible if Philippine policy making and determination of national development agenda will continue to be shaped by foreign interests with ties to local oligarchs and bureaucrats who run the transport system and build transport infrastructure for private profit

#MayMagagawa

(People Economics is a campaign led by research group IBON Foundation to articulate and enrich the people’s alternatives to the failed policies and programs of neoliberalism in the national economy.)

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Consumer issues, Governance, infrastructure

LRT-2’s decline amid funds misuse and dubious deals

LRTA misused LRT-2 rehab funds

Presidential mouthpiece Salvador Panelo called the challenge to commute. The dare arose from his callous remark about the state of the metro’s transport system. There’s no crisis he said, since people are still able to go wherever they need to. Enduring the daily torment of long queues and endless waits, overcrowding and hellish traffic, the commuting public are of course outraged.

But Panelo’s four-hour, four-jeepney commute circus should not distract us from the fundamental issues. The ordinary working class and students who bear the torture of commuting do not need him to validate what they suffer every day.

Recurrent mishaps

The crisis in the mass transport system is not only real. It is chronic and structural. It did not start when the LRT-2 suspended its operations as the usual glitches hampered the LRT-1 and MRT-3. For as long as we can remember, one or two of Metro Manila’s rail lines break down on an almost weekly basis.

To be sure, the Duterte administration is not solely to blame for the recurrent glitches, passenger offloading and shutdowns of Metro Manila’s rail system. Such decrepit state of the rail system was spawned by decades of accumulated wrong government policies, neglect and corruption. Technical glitches number to thousands per year, according to transport officials.

These train malfunctions started to occur with increasing frequency under the previous administrations of Arroyo and Aquino, and the crisis continues its cumulative deterioration under Duterte. Prior to these recent incidents, LRT-2 is not as notorious as LRT-1 and more especially MRT-3 in terms of service interruptions.

LRT-2 had several mishaps prior to the October 4 fire that brought its entire line to a halt for several days. Last May 18, two of its trains collided and injured 34 people. It was perhaps the second worst accident involving metro rails, just behind the wayward MRT-3 train that rammed through a station and hurt 38 people back in 2014.

The LRT-2 collision happened two days after a lightning hit the train line’s overhead power connection. Unable to operate, the incident stranded thousands of LRT-2 commuters in the middle of a thunderstorm. On June 7, LRT-2 also suspended its operations due to a technical malfunction.

Declining performance

It seemed that the recent major breakdown of the LRT-2, which will take a possible six to nine months to be fully restored, was bound to happen. This noticeable increased frequency in its system’s malfunctions is affirmed by the rail line’s declining performance indicators. From an average of 11 trainsets running during peak hours in 2014 and 2015, the number fell to 10 in 2016 and 2017, and further to just 8 in 2018 and 7 trainsets in 2019.

Passenger traffic has also substantially decreased – from 72.85 million in 2014, the number fell to 62.21 million in 2015. After recovering to 67 million in 2016, passenger traffic in LRT-2 progressively declined to 65.96 million in 2017 and 64.70 million in 2018. Its passenger traffic in the first five months of 2019 is also the lowest in the last six years.

LRT-2’s farebox ratio – or the proportion of fare revenues to total operation and maintenance (O&M) costs – is falling as well. A farebox ratio of 1.00 means that fare revenues cover 100% of O&M cost.  From an upward trend of 1.00, 1.44 and 1.53 in 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively, the farebox ratio of LRT-2 has gone down continuously to 1.06, 0.93 and 0.81 in 2017, 2018 and 2019 (first five months), respectively.

Actual gross revenues collected from LRT-2, after increasing from Php973.36 million in 2014 to Php1.25 billion in 2015 (the year when fares were substantially hiked) and further to Php1.31 billion in 2016, declined to Php1.27 billion in 2017 and Php1.24 billion in 2018. Comparing similar periods, collected gross revenues in the first five months of 2019 (Php485.59 million) are also the lowest since 2014.

Falling farebox ratio is the result of declining passenger traffic which results to lower fare revenues, and higher O&M costs due to, among others, poor service maintenance of the system. Poor maintenance leads to less trainsets running and less revenues earned. It is a cycle that could be ended through efficiency in management and maintenance of the system.

Misusing rehab funds

Alas, the train line operated by the Light Rail Transport Authority (LRTA) has been obviously poorly managed and maintained.

One reason is that already limited public resources allocated for the system’s improvement are not properly being used. In its 2018 audit report on the LRTA, the Commission on Audit (COA) said that a portion of state subsidy for the rehabilitation of LRT-2 as well as for general administration and support “was not utilized in accordance with its intended purpose”.

Through a Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) on June 17, 2016, the LRTA received Php743.56 million from the national government. However, state auditors found out almost half of that amount – Php360 million – was transferred to LRTA accounts not related to the purpose of the SARO (i.e., LRT-2 rehabilitation and administration and support).

“Questionable and doubtful”, according to COA, was the transfer of Php210 million in rehabilitation and restoration funds of LRT-2 to fill the liabilities of the LRTA in a bank account held in trust for bid documents, bonds and retention.

Likewise, state auditors noted the transfer of Php150 million in LRT-2 rehabilitation and restoration funds to a savings account that holds LRTA’s revenues from magnetic ticket sales. It was used as partial payment, interest charges and taxes for an outstanding loan arising from the services rendered by a private contractor with LRT-1.

In its report, released just last June 2019, COA asked the LRTA management to “discontinue using the subsidy funds earmarked for specific purposes and strictly comply with EO (Executive Order) 292 on the use of subsidy fund”. EO 292 refers to the Administrative Code of 1987.

COA also told the government rail agency to “replace the amount taken from the subsidy fund of Rehabilitation of LRT Line 2 System and General Administration and Support”. Further, state auditors asked the LRTA management to submit an explanation on the questionable transfer of Php210 million to bank accounts not meant for LRT-2 rehabilitation.

Dubious deals

Not only is the LRTA mismanaging the funds intended to improve the condition of and services provided by the LRT-2 system. It also continues to make deals with long-time LRTA private contractors that have a questionable track record.

The current maintenance provider for LRT-2 is the AMSCO joint venture composed of APT Global Inc., MultiScan Corporation, and Opus Land, Inc., with the LRTA awarding a Php1.81-billion contract last December 2018.

APT Global has figured in several cases of problematic contracts involving Metro Manila’s rail systems. As the MRT-3 maintenance provider, APT Global was ordered by the COA in 2015 to pay Php211 million for failing to deliver its contractual obligations. Among others, they included failure to deliver trains, defective escalators and elevators and half line operations.

APT Global was also part of the TSPA joint venture (along with Telefonika, STIV and Pacific) that maintained LRT-2 from June 2007 to June 2012. In its 2016 Special Audit Report on the LRTA, COA said that TSPA committed a minimum of 16 trainsets running on LRT-2 but only delivered 13 trainsets. Despite this, LRTA still paid its contract with TSPA in full, worth almost Php1.06 billion, instead of making the necessary cost reduction.

With such an undesirable track record, it is perplexing how APT Global was still able to be part of a joint venture that currently maintains the LRT-2. Apparently, it is one of the favored contractors by those in the LRTA.

The bidding conducted by the LRTA for the procurement for maintenance of the LRT-2 system won by APT Global’s joint venture AMSCO was allegedly fraught with irregularities. Commuter groups RILES Network and United Filipino Consumers and Commuters filed a case before the Ombdusman against LRTA officials last April 2019.

They alleged, among others, that the LRTA designed the bidding process in a way that ensures only AMSCO will bag the contract. It included requiring the use of spare parts that AMSCO’s MultiScan is the exclusive distributor of in the Philippines. Like APT Global, MultiScan is a longtime contractor of LRTA as a supplier of spare parts and consumables of the LRT-2 system in the past two decades.

The real challenge

In other words, the hundreds of thousands of LRT-2 commuters affected by the shutdown are at the mercy of, to the say the least, an inefficient government agency and its inept private contractors that profit millions of pesos in taxpayers’ and commuters’ money.

With the kind of track record that those handling the LRT-2 have, no wonder that the rail system broke down the way it did. It is also not surprising that the damages caused by the fire could supposedly take months to repair, aggravating the already unbearable state of public commute in Metro Manila.

The public sector should continue to operate the LRT-2 as a provider of a vital public service. The transportation department’s plan to privatize its operation and maintenance will only worsen the woes of commuters and further drain public resources as evidenced by our experience in LRT-1 and MRT-3.

But obviously, the current LRTA has been mismanaging the LRT-2 system. Reforms must be put in place to address this, including structural changes that would allow greater public scrutiny of and participation in the rail agency’s operations. Private contractors that have repeatedly failed to deliver should be banned and held to account. Using the crisis to justify the failed and flawed privatization must be opposed.

These are actually small reforms compared to the massive extent of Metro Manila’s transport crisis, but necessary reforms nonetheless to ensure that the LRT-2 becomes a truly publicly run rail system meant to serve the commuters’ interests and welfare.

Is the Duterte administration capable of instituting these reforms to start addressing the crisis? That’s the real challenge to Panelo and his boss. ###

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