The COVID-19 Situation Helped Me Prove Something

As some would say, there is always a silver lining to things. The COVID-19 situation helped me to prove the importance of securing domestic food sources, keeping domestic food production, and prioritizing agriculture and rural development.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continues to make its presence felt around the world. As of this writing, there are total of 4,297,461 confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the world, of which 289,101 have died from the disease and 1,545,520 are able to recover. The disease still causes countries to shut down their borders, most of commercial air travel to be crippled, and millions of people stuck in their homes due to varying degrees of lockdowns being imposed by governments.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte and the Inter-Agency task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) have amended the series of interventions being taken by the government in various areas across the country. Metro Manila, Laguna and Cebu City will shift from being under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) to Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ), which will allow limited movement of people and the partial resumption of economic activity through the reopening of several businesses and the resumption of the construction of vital infrastructure. Areas that were previously under ECQ such as the rest of the CALABARZON provinces, Baguio City, the province of Cebu and Davao City are moving to General Community Quarantine, which allows the further opening of the economy by allowing a larger but still limited number of the workforce to go back to work and malls and other similar businesses to be partially opened provided that several strict health measures will be implemented. Low risk areas such as the Ilocos region, the Mindoro provinces, Palawan, Samar, Leyte and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) will be finally out from any type of community quarantine but local governments in those areas are tasked to enforce minimum health standards such as social distancing and the wearing of masks.

The COVID-19 situation has been tough to decision-makers, implementers and citizens economically. For the decision-makers and implementers need to find ways to balance both public health and economic concerns in every decision that they will make and course of action that they will take while also looking into using hundreds of billions of pesos as part of a stimulus package to restart the economy. Millions of people who are forced to stop from working due to the areas being placed under lockdowns have become dependent on government financial support being provided by agencies such as the Department of social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), and some local government units, enabling them to somewhat feed themselves and their families during months of ECQ or GCQ.

During the most recent IATF meeting at the Malago Clubhouse in Malacanang, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez emphasized the importance of food production, and food logistics and supply chain in the goal of stimulating the Philippine economy at the time of COVID-19 and making sure that food is available to millions of people who are forced to stay at home during the lockdown. For the first time in years, economists are finally recognizing the importance of domestic food production despite its imperfections, especially high costs of production, which can actually be solved through a series of interventions such as farm mechanization and enhanced access to credit and technology by farmers and agribusinesses. For the longest time, industrial economists have been pushing for the Philippines to abandon rice and several other crops that are being produced at a loss domestically by buying them entirely from importers such as Vietnam and Thailand and shifting arable lands to the production of high-value crops that can actually bring money to the table.

As an agricultural economist by training and profession, I stood my ground against the industrial economists. I believe that the production of rice and other crops that are more expensive to produce locally should be maintained on the basis of national security. For one, if local rice farms will stop producing, expect many Filipinos to rebel against the government due to lost sources of livelihood and decreased access to readily available rice stocks. It is also a mistake to rely heavily on imported rice at a time when international supply chains can be easily shut down by war or economic crisis.

I advocated instead for improving farm production and harvest practices through farm mechanization and reduction of wastage, and a change of farmer mindset from doing subsistence farming to pursuing farming to earn profit as a way of lower production costs of rice and other crops, and, at the same time, securing domestic food sources and creating new business and job opportunities in the countryside. I also advocated for the government to launch a widespread campaign to promote alternatives to rice such as corn, cassava and sweet potato and the consumption to much healthier brown and red rice varietie to reduce dependence on white milled rice.

The COVID-19 situation saw countries closing their borders, causing trade and commercial activity to be severely reduced. One of these countries is Vietnam, the main source of the Philippines' imported rice stocks, which informed its trade partners that it will stop shipping rice for the meantime to secure its domestic food sources while dealing with the pandemic. Imagine the effect of this move by Vietnam to the food security situation in the Philippines if the industrial economists prevailed with what they wanted. Gutom na nga ang mga tao, mas lalo pa silang magugutom.

As some would say, there is always a silver lining to things. The COVID-19 situation helped me to prove the importance of securing domestic food sources, keeping domestic food production, and prioritizing agriculture and rural development. I am glad that the President and the IATF, and the economic managers are now seeing the bigger picture and why the things that mentioned are vital to the survival of the nation. Hopefully, key measures such as the passage of the Comprehensive Income Tax and Incentives Rationalization Act (CITIRA) into law; the drafting and implementation of comprehensive long-term national food security and agribusiness, land use and management, and water resources use and management plans; and pursuing the economic and rural development aspect of the "Balik Probinsya" program instead of it just being about moving people out of Metro Manila and other urban areas are going to be implemented by this administration to realize those goals.

About the Author
Benedict is an agricultural economist, academician and writer. He has gained experience and expertise in various fields of economics, business, political science and public relations after through professional ventures in the academe, and in the public and private sectors. He has authored or co-authored key publications on topics ranging from agriculture and food security to global affairs and politics.
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