Social capital against COVID-19

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This time, at least the rhetoric was right: “Heal as One,” instead of “War against COVID-19.” The Bayanihan Act itself fixed its provisions on constitutional anchors. And the initial response of a former mayor turned president looked to the level of government closest to the community, the barangay heads, to take the initiative in mobilizing the people against the pandemic.

The reality quickly proved different from the rhetoric. Faced with an unfamiliar problem, President Duterte immediately reverted to the default mode: Mobilize police and military elements against the enemy. To direct the Cabinet-level National Task Force Against COVID-19, he appointed, as on earlier occasions, a retired general, who already had a critical job as head of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

In the first few publicly-aired Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases meetings, however, Mr. Duterte repeatedly expressed frustration that his soldiers could not just shoot down the virus. This did not stop the deployment of Special Action Forces and armored vehicles against the pandemic. Malacañang’s public relations avoided branding the government response as a war; it might as well have done so. In a war, victory means imposing one’s will on the vanquished. Security forces could not bend the virus to their bidding. But they could dominate the civilian population and declare victory.

The pandemic has disrupted the operations of hospitals and schoolrooms, courthouses and factories, theaters, markets, and churches. With all sectors affected, healing as one called for a unified strategy that only a central government could plan and implement. As governance experts have concluded, it will take a state to contain the coronavirus. But “healing as one” does not demand, as it seems to be interpreted, the centralization of power in only one institution or one decision-maker depending on gut-feel.

In many countries, however, the pandemic has resulted in expanding the already extensive powers of the executive, because this was claimed necessary to overcome the pandemic crisis. The literature on crisis management, particularly in the case of public health disasters, as against terrorist attacks like 9/11, questions the assumption that authoritarian governments were necessarily more effective than democracies in coping with crises.

The game is far from over, but both authoritarian governments and liberal democracies have recorded successes and failures against COVID-19. Even democratic governments allow for temporary grants of extraordinary executive authority during periods of national emergencies. Authoritarian governments tend to be more fearful of even temporarily relaxing their powers. Denying the freedom to dissent, once permitted, may prove as difficult as returning spilled toothpaste back to the tube.

Three factors have appeared more crucial than governance structure: the capacity of the bureaucracy, the people’s confidence in government, and the quality of the leadership. Public intellectuals have attributed the dismal performance of the United States against the pandemic not to its liberal, democratic character, but to the weakened condition of the bureaucracy, the erosion of people’s confidence in government, and the character of the leadership.

The American public health bureaucracy has been blamed for failing to prepare against pandemics that epidemiologists had long warned against. The health crisis came at a time when the public was sharply polarized between those supporting and those opposing Donald Trump. Both elements fundamentally rested on the third factor—trust in the leadership that contributed to what political philosopher Francis Fukuyama described as social capital.

Competent, compassionate leaders committed to the public good can deal with bureaucratic problems. A leader’s power to retrain, fire, and hire personnel can address weaknesses and corruption in the bureaucracy, actions that themselves strengthen public trust in the leadership. In Fukuyama’s view, and to his regret, the pandemic struck the country when government was under the “most incompetent and divisive leader in its modern history.”

The Duterte administration has had the benefit of three years to build social capital against crises like COVID-19. Any assessment of the Philippines’ performance must inquire into what it has done before and at the onset of the pandemic to earn the trust of the public in its policies, the capacity of its bureaucracy, and the motivations of its leaders.

Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club (makatibusinessclub@mbc.com.ph).

Posted on August 1, 2020 under Business Matters section of The Philippine Daily Inquirer