Acting local against COVID-19

by Edilberto De Jesus
Originally published in Rappler  April 09, 2020

Covid-19 casts a fresh light on the merits of unitary and federal governance systems.

In the federalized United States, party affiliations tend to shape the orientation towards national or state power. Republicans prefer to limit federal powers over the states and intrusion into their affairs. Although now controlling the most populous and wealthiest states, like California and New York, Democrats see a greater need for Big Government.

The pandemic has proven beyond the states’ capacity to cope, even with providing basic protective equipment for frontliners. Invoking principles, Republicans can tell supplicant governors that public health in their states is their responsibility; as Donald Trump has remarked: “Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work . . . we’re not a shipping clerk.” States also lack the power, for instance, to waive the regulations of the federal Food and Drug Administration to speed up Covid-19 testing protocols.

In an election year, rejecting presidential responsibility for anti-coronavirus management won’t play well. Denying aid to Democrat-controlled states may alienate their Republican voters. Trump must also prove he can protect Republican states from Covid-19, but allies who are state rights fundamentalists can block effective coronavirus countermeasures.

The federal government cannot unilaterally assume the state government’s police powers to issue a stay-at-home order. Over two weeks after the first state, California, issued such an order on 19 March, 8 Republican state governors have yet to do so.

To suppress the pandemic in the US, the federal government needs the concurrence of the states to pursue nation-wide public health strategies but is currently controlled by a party resistant to such an intervention.

No constitutional or ideological concern constrains the Philippine central government’s power to exercise control over local affairs. Only its own capacity and competence.

Davao experience

Experience as Davao City Mayor doubtless influenced President Duterte’s initial directive on COVID-19, which focused, not even on provincial governors, but on barangay leaders.

He gave them the mandate to do everything they could to control the pandemic and to mitigate its impact on the people. He would have known that central government, even if had the resources, would take time to get its act together.

The identification and contact tracing of COVID-19 cases is probably best undertaken, anyway, at the lowest level of government, small enough for their leaders to get to know the people. The bayanihan spirit, nurtured by the interpersonal connections among kin and neighbors, also best thrives at the community level.

Local authorities should know their municipalities better than the central government. This was the basic argument for federalism that over the last 3 years, the Duterte administration has been promoting to devolve governance and give more power to local government units.

COVID-19 presented (and presents) a chance to apply and prove the principle that decision-making powers to deal with problems are best devolved to the level that owns, understands and thus are best positioned to address them.

Hence, it seemed to make sense to allow Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto to use tricycles to serve the city’s transport needs. Some areas of the city were not accessible by four-wheeled vehicles. With the lockdown, it was unlikely that many people would want to go to the same places at the same time. Contact tracing would be easier with tricycles carrying only driver and one passenger on each trip.

Imperial Manila prevails

But when push came to shove, top-down, command-and-control habits of Imperial Manila prevailed. Orders from IATF had to be obeyed to the letter. The classic formulation came from Secretary Karlo Nograles: if there is any doubt that a deviation from any order is permissible, he instructs us to assume that the response will be “No.”

Thus, the travesty of Vico Sotto, acting along Mr. Duterte’s original call to exercise initiative in responding to constituency needs, being summoned by the NBI to explain his disobedience to instructions.

This is the risk with a crisis management approach on a public health issue focused on law enforcement by police authorities.

A photograph of medical frontliners carrying placards begging passing motorists for a ride to their battle stations might well serve as an iconic image of the pandemic challenge. With the suspension of public transport, the directive from Nograles was for everyone needing to travel to take a private car or walk.

Finally, 3 weeks after the decision, he has announced that frontliners can now obtain a Rapid Pass qualifying them to board whatever public vehicles are allowed to be on the road.

If we could count on an exceptionally wise, just and benevolent leadership, a command from King (or dictator) could efficiently reach all parts of the country and quickly demonstrate its benefits. Few governments can claim the gift of such a leadership, particularly on a new and complex problem, when even basic issues slip through unresolved. The option might be to play the odds.

Encourage local initiatives

There are close to 1,500 municipalities in the Philippines. With a government that is not exceptionally wise, just, and benevolent, one nationally mandated decision – costly to implement – can efficiently cause damage to all.

Some general guiding framework will be necessary, but might it not be more prudent to permit and even encourage, as Mr. Duterte initially did, the local initiative of mayors?

Surely, not all 1,500 mayors will get things wrong. And if some of them do fall flat on their faces, the feedback would be quicker and there would be better chances for their own communities or higher levels of government to flag mistakes and make the necessary corrections.

Otherwise, best forget the administration’s lofty rhetoric on subsidiarity, devolution, federalism.