No government is ready for a pandemic. Nobody is.
It’s been two months since the implementation of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), a response adopted by almost all countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Alongside to this ECQ are the different policies, programs and mechanisms that both the national government and local government units have been doing.
In this article, allow me to characterize in gist the different reactions and responses happened by and between the national government and local government units (LGUs) to address the COVID-19 pandemic:
- National-Local Relations: Expectation vs Reality
Our national-local government relations operate under the system of decentralization. To quickly define decentralization, according to de Guzman and Padilla (1992), it is "the dispersal of authority and responsibility and the allocation of powers and functions from the center or top-level government to the local levels..." Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 (then 2019 NCoV) a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, various national policies have been released to guide the actions of LGUs such as:
- Convening of an Inter-Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) responsible in making recommendations to the President in addressing this pandemic;
- Presidential Proclamation No. 922 or the Declaration of Public Health Emergency Throughout the Philippines which capacitated LGUs to immediately act to prevent loss of life and utilize appropriate resources to implement urgent and critical measures to contain or prevent the spread of COVID-19;
- Passage of the Republic Act 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act which in part mandated all LGUs to act within parameters of the rules, regulations and directives set by the National Government;
- Holding of Regular Press Briefings by the President specifically when he called the attention of the local chief executives (Mayors and Punong Barangays) to intensify their response in containing the spread of COVID-19 in their respective localities and holding them accountable in failing to do so; and
- an ongoing list of different issuances, guidelines and directives by the national government for implementation of the LGUs.
However, amidst all these national policies and programs, an inconsistency, if not a disconnect, between national frameworks and real ground situation in the LGUs makes it more challenging for LGU officials to implement national policies and programs. What happens is an “Expectation vs Reality” scenario wherein the pronouncements of national officials are not fully realized, and local officials are left to take the blames and complaints of their constituencies for implementing a policy or program which they are not the proponents. Take for instance is the implementation of the Social Amelioration Program when national officials gave the public the impression that “everyone” will benefit from it, but a guideline says otherwise. Local officials who were task to facilitate its implementation instead became “shock absorbers” of numerous complaints and rants of those who expected to be included but did not. In addition, as new addition to the list of national directives continues, more questions than answers are left at the expense of the LGUs.
- Inter-Local Government Relations: Connecting to Disconnect
A pandemic cannot be restrained by simply closing local borders. But limiting the movement of people can help its spread. So, by placing different regions under enhanced community quarantine, LGUs have prompted to secure their borders. Public transport operation has been suspended, checkpoints have been installed between interlocal boundaries, and people are restricted from travelling.
But to do this, inter-local cooperation must be done to ensure that policies in each LGU are consistent with its neighboring LGUs. Here we saw local chief executives of cities and municipalities in provinces or regions (like NCR) convening, to ensure that cross border policies are in place like who are allowed to travel, which cross border activities are prohibited, what will be the status of the validity of a “travel pass” of one LGU to another, which LGU is responsible for the locally stranded individuals, and other forms of coordination that can be done between LGUs to secure their respective borders.
- Local Governments Stepping Up: Bringing out the Good from the Bad
As they say, a crisis can either bring the worst or the best in us.
And some local leaders chose to stand out amidst this crisis. We saw how local leaders like Mayor Vico Sotto of Pasig, Mayor Marcy Teodoro of Marikina, Mayor Emeng Pascual of Gapan, Mayor Benjamin Magalong of Baguio among others took this crisis as an opportunity to bring public service to a higher level. And with the presence of social media, this heightened the flack of attention and caused many netizens to post shoutouts and hashtags of “Sana All” praised mayors who have shown how to positively respond to the effects of this crisis. This somehow made everyone realized the importance of electing competent local leaders.
And these mayors’ innovative ways of responding to this crisis became best practices replicated by other mayors and applied it to their respective localities.
In sum, we are seeing how this pandemic is testing our government system, challenging local and regional government administration paradigms, and practically changing everything we think about our government. This is making us rethink on the kind of relationship that our national government and our LGUs should have, and the important role of local governments in these trying times. It is making us shift our attention to the grassroots level instead of the top level of our government. Because at the end of the day, the effects of a crisis like a pandemic will not be first felt at the national level, it will be at the local.