It seems one of only two reasons might prompt President Rodrigo Duterte to mention you in a State of the Nation Address (Sona): you have won his heart or you have drawn his ire.

In his fifth Sona, delivered amid the COVID-19 pandemic President Duterte sought cheers for his cabinet officials, the members of the COVID-19 task force, health professionals, and other frontliners (rightly), his former aide Sen. Christopher Lawrence Go, and even Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The President also sought jeers for critics like Sen. Franklin Drilon, who had dared him to bat for the passage of an anti-dynasty law to more realistically dismantle oligarchy in the country.

To show that his purported fight against “oligarchs” did not stop with the Lopezes whose media company ABS-CBN had been denied a franchise, the President threatened with the prospect of closure and expropriation PLDT-Smart and Globe, telecommunications firms owned respectively by Manuel Pangilinan and the Ayalas, should they fail to improve services.

But the President missed the opportunity to speak of the plight of ordinary Filipinos amid the coronavirus crisis.

No clear plans for economic recovery

In the face of the initial spread of the coronavirus in late March, the government imposed extended lockdowns in mega-cities and regions, causing firms to close and workers to lose jobs. Some firms have resumed operations with the gradual reopening of the economy in June. More and more workers have also started returning to their jobs even in the absence of mass testing and alternative public transport.

However, several firms remain shut, leaving millions of people unemployed. President Duterte should have addressed this in his penultimate Sona. Beyond a plan to better manage the country’s COVID-19 situation (which was also missing from the President’s speech), most Filipinos anticipated a coherent strategy to rebuild the economy starting with decent employment.

Instead, the chief executive simply rehashed old strategies with unconvincing projected results. He highlighted big-ticket projects under the Build-Build-Build infrastructure program to absorb displaced workers, including nearly 100,000 repatriated ones as of July 20, 2020, and 8,000 to 10,000 stranded citizens who had mostly migrated to Metro Manila for work. He also called on Congress to pass the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprise bill or Create (formerly Citira/Train 2), with the assumption that reduced corporate income tax and more corporate incentives lead to more investments and jobs.

Prior to the pandemic, both measures were already riddled with implementation issues. The Build-Build-Build program had gone off track as of 2019, with only nine of 75 projects having commenced (the list of projects was later revised by the administration’s economic team). With such huge delays, it is easy to doubt whether the program can adequately deliver for the labor sector. Meanwhile, the Create bill is widely seen to be ill-timed as millions of families reel from the effects of Train 1 and need to depend on the government for social assistance amid the pandemic. With lowered taxes on big businesses, the government may well lose revenues that it needs to help workers and their families overcome the health crisis.

People-first stimulus packages and expanded social protection

If President Duterte were serious about his recent realization that COVID-19 is “perhaps our number one problem today,” his administration should put the lives and livelihoods of people first and strive for bolder reforms in the country’s social protection system.

These measures are recommended:

  • Regular mass testing through increased laboratory capacity and testing kit supply, especially for returning workers;
  • Stimulus packages that: (1) ensure the continuity of social assistance for low-income families and displaced workers; (2) assist business operations through wage subsidies, zero-interest loans, and technical support for micro, small, and medium enterprises including digital transition measures; (3) support the gradual revival of tourism and aid underdeveloped rural economic sectors like agriculture and fisheries; and (4) expand public emergency employment schemes including cash-for-work in the informal sector;
  • Introduction of basic income guarantee to strengthen social protection of all Filipinos while ensuring development equity for marginalized sectors; and
  • Policy reforms to spur greater investments in ecologically sustainable infrastructure programs towards greening the economy.