There is an important lesson to be learned from countries such as South Korea and New Zealand that are considered very successful in slowing the spread of COVID-19: They have high social cohesion, public trust in government, and government accountability.
These countries prove that consensus, trust, and accountability are absolutely necessary to win the war against COVID-19. The fourth necessity is the active participation of all sectors of society — the so-called “whole of society” approach — in this fight.
As early as March, individuals and civil society organizations (CSOs) realized this and formed the COVID-19 Action Network (CAN) as a common meeting ground to discuss and learn what we could do to stop the spread of COVID-19. CAN is an informal network of CSOs, the academe, and the private sector. CAN engages with the government at all levels — not to oppose but to help in decision making and hold the government accountable to the people.
CAN is able to bring different groups together to address common issues through its forums and bridge-building work. In partnership with the Galing Pook Foundation and the League of Cities of the Philippines, CAN organized several forums on local innovations to address COVID-19 that can be copied by any city or province. It has also sparked the development of risk communication guides and protocols for community care for LGUs, with the support of the Asia Foundation and the Alliance for Improving Health Outcomes (AIHO). Another member is the Citizens’ Budget Tracker (CBT), which is a community of over 60 volunteers tracking the COVID-19 Budget of the Philippines under the Bayanihan Act. CBT, together with the Right To Know Right Now (R2KRN) Coalition, got the National Privacy Commission to clarify that COVID-19 information on the Social Amelioration Program is public information, increasing transparency over the use of funds meant for the poor.
Mobility reform advocates banded together to establish the Move As One Coalition to advocate a safe, humane, and inclusive public transportation system in the country. Through a CAN Forum, they were able to get policy makers and government agencies to heed the call for more dedicated bike lanes, service contracting, and support for transport workers. The Move As One Coalition has since grown to 140 organizations with over 77,000 petitioners who have signed their call for reforms.
In a similar way, leaders of over 160 medical societies came together to form the Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 or HPAAC. They are the network of organizations of doctors, nurses, and other medical workers who called for a timeout in August to reassess the country’s COVID-19 strategy and discuss ways to improve the healthcare system. They engage the Department of Health, policy makers, and the private sector to develop occupational safety protocols and unified clinical algorithms for patient referral and care.
These developments would seem to show that the role of civil society is valued by our policy makers and leaders. Policy makers and government officials do take time to reach out and listen to proposals from civil society. But, they can do better at giving civil society a seat at the table — not to mention having more women — at the highest levels in the IATF and in regional decision-making bodies. This is already being done in cities like Pasig, Valenzuela, Lipa, Tabaco, and Iloilo.
Take the most recent case of the proposed easing of the one-meter physical distance rule in public transportation. As the government publicly debated on the Department of Transportation’s proposal, the HPAAC provided an evidence-based warning that a reduction in the one-meter rule could lead to a spike in transmissions and deaths. With two government agencies disagreeing on the proposal, it was left to the President to decide. Thankfully, the government listened to the healthcare experts and did not push through with the announced rule change.
The confusion and mess could have been avoided if stakeholders like HPAAC and the Move As One Coalition were an integral part of the decision-making process. By doing so, the government would be able to put forward evidence-based policies knowing it has the support of civil society and the private sector. What we are seeing now, however, is the government reacting to civil society and public opinion whenever a controversial policy is floated.
If the government truly wants a whole-of-society solution to COVID-19, it needs to do better at being inclusive of diverse views and approaches. It’s time to end kanya-kanya (to each his own) and replace it with “kaya natin ‘to” (we can do this).
HPAAC has launched a campaign calling on all Filipinos to ensure a safe and enjoyable Christmas by staying healthy and preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Their simple message — if we all do our part, we can be together with our loved ones this Christmas season. Kaya natin ‘to!
Zak Yuson is a co-convenor of the COVID-19 Action Network (CAN) Philippines and is a Fellow of Action for Economic Reforms.