After 84 straight quarters of robust growth, the Philippine economy contracted in the first three months of the year, posting its worst performance since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.
Gross domestic product shrank to just 0.2 percent from January to March, plummeting from the 6.7 percent in the last quarter of 2019. Finance officials warn that the worst isn’t over and the economy could shrink further for the rest of this year, as measures to contain the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic continue to dampen business activity.
Around the world, governments are struggling to balance the protection of lives and preservation of livelihoods amid the COVID-19 contagion. In the absence of a vaccine or cure, the uncertainty is expected to persist for months. For the Philippines, the year got off to a bad start, with the disruption caused by the powerful explosion of Taal Volcano in January.
The economic contraction has given urgency to easing COVID-19 quarantine measures, especially in Metro Manila, which accounts for the bulk of national production. Both national and local government agencies must ensure that any easing will not cause the worst fears of health experts to materialize: a resurgence of the coronavirus following a flattening of the curve.
By now, the world has an idea of how to curb the contagion even before a vaccine or cure becomes commercially available. Mass testing with speedy results is critical. So is efficient contact tracing, preferably supported by digital apps. There must be sufficient quarantine and isolation facilities, preferably away from regular medical institutions whose services are needed for other health afflictions. Equally important is sustaining several health safety practices long after any form of quarantine has been lifted. These practices include physical distancing, the use of face masks, regular hand washing, and the use of thermal scans and sanitized foot baths.
Reviving the economy will require the provision of safety nets not just for the impoverished but also for the hardest hit sectors such as the travel and tourism industry. After two months of quarantine, many enterprises are folding and millions have been rendered jobless or underemployed. Overseas Filipino workers are returning home in droves, making job creation even more urgent. The government cannot do this alone; the situation calls for all hands on deck. The nation must recover as one from this economic crisis.