Speech of Maria Leonor Gerona Robredo Vice President of the Philippines ICMA UP NCPAG UP Webinar Series Launch and Induction of ICMA UP NCPAG Officers
Good morning everyone. I hope you are all safe and well. To Dean Dan Saguil; Mr. James Malloy; ICMA UP NCPAG Officers, Members, and Mentors—congratulations for organizing this event. Thank you as well to all of today’s panel speakers for taking the time from your busy schedules to share your knowledge and experience with today’s youth.
Ten months ago today, on January 30, the Philippines reported its first case of COVID-19. On March 7, the first case of local transmission was confirmed. And today, as I speak, our country ranks 21st in the world in terms of the number of COVID cases with more than 370,000. More than 7,000 people have died. Millions have lost their jobs. The economy continues to struggle, and our healthcare system is still under strain. All the while, anxiety and fear take a toll on everyone in our country, especially the most vulnerable.
A crisis of this magnitude calls for a massive, strategic response, and this can only be achieved by leadership that is able to pull everyone together towards a single direction. Likewise, if stakeholders—from government, from the private sector, and most importantly, from the general public that serve as the first line of defense in preventing the spread of the disease—are given a concrete horizon that they can work towards, then it will be much easier for everyone to buy in. Policies can be implemented and actively supported by the populace, and social anxiety can be kept at bay. In other words, we need goals, and a plan to achieve those goals.
It is unfortunate that such goals, such plans, have been in short supply, even with very good and reliable people spearheading the efforts. There are times that we get the feeling that there is no central coordinated approach with a clear set of priorities. Even from the onset, chances for preventive measures like early travel restrictions were missed. At a time when all hands needed to be on deck, national priorities went elsewhere: An anti-terrorism bill which later became law, protracted hearings on media network ABS-CBN’s franchise, and a white sand project in Manila Bay are just some examples. Unfortunately, the government has responded with hostility or further distractions to criticisms and suggestions. This pandemic should not be approached as a public relations exercise, but a once-in-a-century problem that needs to be urgently solved.
Sadly, the national approach to the pandemic has been centered on debates that fail to take bigger goals into account; worse, it has fallen back on an either-or mindset that misappreciates the interconnectedness of things. We are presented with binaries—lockdown or no lockdown; economy or health; public safety or human rights—when in fact, these are all components of what should be an ultimate goal of a safer, more compassionate, better normal for all.
During times of crisis, having a clear and informed direction takes on life-or-death importance—and such a direction can only begin with data. Our office has made frequent recommendations to refine and improve our data gathering procedures. Our information on testing, the number of cases, transmission rates, and fatalities must not only be accurate; they need to be very granular and specific to our communities. For example, from the data drop of the Department of Health, our office crunches the numbers and presents data in line with international standards on COVID-19 reporting. If you check our own COVID Data Tracker, we classify LGUs according to their levels of transmission. This we arrived at by computing the number of active cases per 100,000 population. We do this instead of just reporting absolute numbers, because in doing so, we can accurately reflect the severity of transmission in our communities. This should be able to guide and help inform local policies, programs, and the provisioning of aid to the local population. We update this every day and we use this as one of our guides in deciding the quantity and the kind of assistance we extend to communities. This has been our basis for sending a team to Cebu at the end of June, and why we sent teams to Iloilo and Lanao del Sur this month.
The data, at this point, might still have noticeable gaps, but they can already be used to make informed decisions. What needs to be done is to make sense of the data available from a policy lens, come up with clear and strategic action points, and implement them.
These reports, after all, are not just collections of numbers; they provide clarity, a way of making sense of things, a piece of the world that can be relied on when so much has become uncertain. They provide a common baseline of experience that can unite the country, sending the message: Here is the truth; we are in this together.
A data-driven orientation ultimately signals a relentless bias towards the truth. This, in turn, builds trust, which is my second point for today. Trust is the currency of governance. This is something we understood early on at the Office of the Vice President. Many of you here know that we have a very limited mandate, and one of the smallest working budgets in the bureaucracy. But despite this, we were able to launch our COVID-19 Response Operations much earlier than the imposition of the Enhanced Community Quarantine.
The lack of personal protection was number one on the list of frontliner needs at that time. We initially appropriated 5.9 million pesos for PPE sets in early March, but with the requests we have been getting from all over the country, we quickly realized that the amount would not be enough. So with the help of our partner foundation, Kaya Natin, and the generosity of many individuals and private organizations, we launched an online donation drive. In the end, we collected more than 61 million pesos. At that point, we already had the money, but supplies were very erratic. We had to contend with fluctuating prices, customs issues, and lack of supply. That was when we decided to explore the local production of PPEs. In early April, we tapped fashion designers, small local garment manufacturers, as well as community-based dressmakers, to produce alternative and cost-efficient PPE sets, which helped thousands of frontliners across the country. We also partnered with doctors who helped us check the safety, water and alcohol repellence of our locally produced PPE suits.
When the lockdowns suspended public transportation, we saw how many of our frontliners found it difficult to get to work. We set to task immediately, organizing a free shuttle service, with routes and schedules that were refined as feedback came in. Eventually, we also opened dormitories and other temporary living spaces, not just in Metro Manila, but also in Metro Cebu, where frontliners could stay for free.
I tell you this because none of these things would have been possible without trust: From the stakeholders and private partners that we’ve worked with; from our many volunteers who would man workstations, act as our bus conductors or dispatchers, or later on, shared time, knowledge, and creativity for our other initiatives; to individuals who chipped in via our donation portals, knowing that our intentions were clear, and our goals specific. We listened, and improved things along the way. We found more gaps and filled them. Always, we took our cue from the needs of the people we help.
Many people ask how we have been able to do so much with the little that we have. Our answer is this is what we have already been doing for the past 4 years. We were able to train ourselves to make do with the resources that we have, to act swiftly, to be nimble, to be agile, to have a sense of what people need. And to work quietly but with transparency and accountability.
Which brings me to the third and final point. If data guides our decisions, and trust allows us to widen our circles of action—empathy and compassion drive and sustain us. Theories we learn teach us frameworks and processes, but understanding the human dimension of our actions ground decisions into something more spiritual. The instinct for service, for knowing what needs to be done on the ground, is cultivated through constant exposure and engagement. It is like muscle memory: the more we do it, the more our actions become more responsive. Empathy is a spiritual muscle. It demands constant vulnerability—keeping our hearts open by default, so that we can truly hear what is asked of us.
Many of our COVID response initiatives found their genesis as we came face-to-face with the very real and human impact of the pandemic: The suddenly jobless service crew; the child unable to learn because she doesn’t have a computer, or she doesn’t have a parent who can teach her at home, etc. When we set up our app-based Community Marts, we had the small market vendors and tricycle drivers in mind. We wanted them to earn enough despite the pandemic. When we partnered with private groups to put up sikap.ph, an online jobs-matching platform targeted towards blue-collar workers, and iskaparate.com, a digital space for community-based micro-entrepreneurs, we thought of the newly unemployed who needed help with finding employment and the community-based nanays who suddenly felt lost because they did not have the capacity to have online presence; they could not ride the wave of the new normal of conducting businesses.
We also launched a gadget donation drive as soon as DepEd announced the shift to blended learning. But when we realized that the problems were more complex, we also produced teacher training videos and modules, with the help of the UP College of Education, and established Community Learning Hubs that provide educational support in communities where many children do not have gadgets of their own, or whose parents do not have the capacity to teach them at home, or in those cases where students are difficult learners and would need the help of tutors. We, in fact, had the opportunity to visit some of our hubs last week and we were able to talk to some of the tutors, some of the parents and students. Their feedback continues to provide valuable input as we work to make our projects even more responsive to their needs.
This webinar series is an attempt to look into leadership and its critical role in crisis situations like this pandemic. What has worked for us is this: Leadership that does not shy away from doing the hard work. We have key staff and teams manning our different programs, but I have made it a point to be as heavily involved as I can be in all our operations. I am personally on top of our day-to-day operations, and in doing so, I am in the position to manage our many programs that run parallel to each other—I get to make sure that all moving parts are in harmony, and are directed towards the same goal, animated by the same vision.
Likewise, we make it a point to base our actions on solid data, helped out by a network of experts that have been generously volunteering their time. We actively seek new information, best practices and insights, and diligently study how they can be applied to our context. We have monitoring and evaluation tools in place, so that we are able to assess which actions need tweaking or improving on a regular basis. They say micromanaging is not a good thing, but I say it works in crisis situations, such as this pandemic, when circumstances change at a moment’s notice and there are many factors beyond our control, and decisions have to be urgently made.
Ultimately, and especially in the face of crises, leaders provide ways forward: A clear direction emanating from the best available data; strong, transparent partnerships built on trust that pull everyone together towards a solution; and above all, empathy and compassion, driven by the principle that the vulnerability of the least among us redounds to the vulnerability of all.
Thank you very much for this opportunity. Keep safe. Good— Blessings to all of you as you continue with this seminar—webinar series. Mabuhay po kayong lahat!
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 The World Health Organization COVID-19 in the Philippines. url: https://www.who.int/philippines/emergencies/covid-19-response-in-the-philippines#:~:text=On%2030%20January%202020%2C%20the,of%20COVID%2D19%20was%20confirmed.
 John’s Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering. url: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html
 The Department of Health COVID-19 Tracker. url: https://www.doh.gov.ph/covid19tracker