The Barangay should be the frontliner

In this Covid-19 situation, a pandemic, the frontline should have been the barangay and not the health workers because identifying, contact-tracing, monitoring and investigating are all tasks of barangay and that is not just the barangay captain, but the kagawad (village councilors), health workers and the tanod (village police officers).

Note: This column originally appeared in The Manila Times on March 31, 2020.

The Duterte administration has been known for frontline services that are innovations in public management — from passport, license and birth certificate processing, to the one-stop-shop renewal of business permits and business registrations, among others. “Frontline” has always been the mantra since 2016. Unfortunately in this pandemic, that vaunted frontline is nowhere because it takes time for the central government to act. You would think that with Republic Act 11469, or the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act,” the national government and local government units (LGUs) would get their acts together. There is a time lag from the passage to roll-out. It has been a logistical nightmare, to say the least.

We are very public official-centric. Everything is focused on a chief executive, whether president, governor or mayor. It shows that majority of LGUs do not know what risk management is. Most LGUs do not have business continuity plans. They just breathe and live on politics and the next election cycle. Governance seems to have been set aside so that when crisis comes, they freeze and wait for the national government to tell them what to do, to give them money, to lead the way.

Risk management is the “process of identifying, assessing and controling threats to an organization’s capital and earnings. These threats or risks could stem from a wide variety of sources, including financial uncertainty, legal liabilities, strategic management errors, accidents and natural disasters,” just like the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19). And almost all techniques in risk management is data-driven. Who among the local chief executives (LCEs) can bring their campaign maps and data on the table after winning and overlay plans, programs and activities? How many think in terms of numbers and getting the barangay (villages) to be point of contact on the ground to aggregate those data at the center of governance? Very few and these few LCEs are so focused on the micro that they lose sight of the macro drivers.

Barangay are said to be the first contact point of any citizen, taxpayers or not, to government. It has been said, your impression of government is formed at the community level. They should know every household, every street corner and every business locator, among others. They know the supply chain in their locality, assuming they work and perform. In this Covid-19 situation, a pandemic, the frontline should have been the barangay and not the health workers because identifying, contact-tracing, monitoring and investigating are all tasks of barangay and that is not just the barangay captain, but the kagawad (village councilors), health workers and the tanod (village police officers). So, why is it that since two weeks ago, the frontline became suddenly the hospitals?

Even the math tells us that Covid-19 could have been better managed via emergency triage at the barangay level, save for villages that are huge in terms of population. Clustering would have been the way to go. The controlling variable to Covid-19 is population density. The more populous a barangay, the higher the incidence of potential spread. And only data can tell you this, not anecdotal, so that the limited wherewithal can be used efficiently. Without data, as has been pointed out at the start of the quarantine, LCEs will just be looking for the “needle in a haystack,” using a shotgun approach to contain, a total waste.

There are 42,036 barangay nationwide, as per the 2015 census. The largest barangay in terms of population size is Barangay 176 in Caloocan City with 247,000 persons. It is followed by Commonwealth (198,285) and Batasan Hills (161,409), both in Quezon City. Twelve other barangay posted a population size of more than a hundred thousand persons nationwide. According to the Department of Health’s website, there are 1,482 hospitals in the Philippines, 466 are public and 1,016 private. There are 23,013 barangay health stations and 2,590 rural health units. That alone should tell you a narrative not appreciated by many.

The hospitals need not be the first line. The hospitals should be the last line of defense if only barangay officials know what to do. There is no excuse because they have funding. They have had enough training from the investment given them in terms of disaster risk reduction and management and they know their terrain very well. There is still time to recover. Fighting an unknown enemy is hard, but if the fight is on the ground, at the trenches, the barangay should be able to mobilize and manage people and resources fast. Then we save the limited bed capacities of our strained health service system to better use as the last wall of defense.

Imagine if barangay are wired and act as the spokes of the hub (city hall or capitol), there is cohesion, the supply chain is strengthened and the logistics management of becoming battle-ready is enhanced. Imagine if you can use a barangay platform to pay your taxes at that level, get services at that point, community-based data is taken by household and everything is pushed to the city hall/provincial capital for strategic directions for plans, programs and activities. The barangay will play a much bigger role in jump-starting the local economy as we plan our way through the challenges and opportunities of getting on our collective feet as a nation.

We have asked too much from our healthcare workers, about time the barangay step up. Why? Because we are just at the infancy of this pandemic’s trajectory and social (more like physical) distancing, though effective, has to reckon with transmission dynamics at the nuclear level, the family. Each member of the family has to view it in terms of risk impact. If one person puts themselves at risk, everyone in the unit is at risk. As epidemiologists put it, “any break in the chain breaks disease transmission along that chain.”

The battle is just starting. What we do after April 14 defines how we will win the war. Let us do this together, in unison: family, community and as a nation.

About the Author
Malou Tiqiua is the Founder/General Manager of PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. A noted political management expert in the Philippines and Asia, she brings over 20 years of professional experience in public, private and the academe combined. Author of the comprehensive book on electoral campaigns in the Philippines, "Campaign Politics", Malou is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a Political Science degree and a Master of Public Administration. She completed her second master's degree (MA in Political Management) from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
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