Did you know that the insightful and inspirational message on the coronavirus’ lessons for mankind—attributed to Bill Gates and recently going viral on social media—is fake news, according to BBC? Gates apparently had nothing to do with it.
But the false attribution (perhaps to gain more readership) did not diminish the truth and validity of the post’s primary insight: “Whereas many see the corona/COVID-19 virus as a disaster, I prefer to see it as a great corrector. It is sent to remind us of the important lessons we seem to have forgotten, and it is up to us if we learn them or not.”
What is definitely true is that in a 2015 Ted Talk (on YouTube), Gates warned that the most imminent threat to mankind was not a nuclear war, but a global epidemic for which the world was not prepared. Today his prediction has come true.
In a CNN interview on March 26, he said that his warning went largely unheeded, and governments had continued to spend enormous sums on military readiness and nuclear deterrence, in lieu of the relatively modest amounts needed for medical preparedness for a possible pandemic. He said that investment in improving medical platforms for emergency protocols, testing and research into advanced vaccines and cures could have mitigated the ongoing “nightmare scenario.” In his trademark objective but earnest manner, he again expressed the hope that the world would now heed this “smack in the face” warning, before the next crisis hits.
This is the first item on my optimistic wish list—that world leaders and institutions, together with national governments, will wake up to a new paradigm of governance when we finally emerge from this crisis. This new model will emphasize the ongoing safety and security of their constituents beyond the usual threats of war, rebellion, secession and terrorism; beyond natural calamities, i.e., typhoons, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. New emphasis should now be given to preparedness against epidemics, which have the potential to immobilize society and devastate the global economy on very short notice. The coronavirus pandemic is just one big sequel to the H1N1, H5N1 (avian flu), the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Ebola epidemics of recent years. Expect more.
A permanent office
Here in our country (and perhaps in others, as well), an effective step I earnestly suggest is to create a permanent office or executive department whose sole function is disaster preparedness. Right now, our usual response is to mobilize a temporary interagency task force, followed by the appointment of a point person to coordinate activities of the different government agencies involved.
Perhaps it is time to create a separate office whose role is to continuously prepare for any contingency which may arise. It will have a lean staff and adaptive systems and procedures in place for immediate implementation by the other government agencies, including the police and the military, depending on what resources the particular situation would call for. But it should have sufficient authority to fulfill its mandate. An ad hoc task force takes too much time to get its act together, as we have been experiencing.
Next on my wish list is to ensure that our economically underprivileged countrymen, who comprise the vast majority of Filipinos, are adequately covered in times of crisis. I refer mainly to the daily-wage earners, those who have no job security, and are always the first to be displaced. The government should protect them before anyone else.
As an example, the announcement of the lockdown was so sudden that the daily-wage construction workers engaged by our contractor for two projects suddenly found themselves without any work and income. In fact, when the rules of the lockdown were still unclear, they reported for work, but were asked by the local authorities to leave in the middle of the day.
Another example: The women caddies in our golf club, most of whom are their families’ breadwinners, suddenly found themselves with zero income for the duration of the lockdown. Fortunately, the members of our club, individually and in groups, gave them immediate assistance to help tide their families over during this period.
Think how many thousands more of these displaced workers in many other industries are in our midst!
Although many private companies, large and small, have stepped up to help their contractual and daily-wage workers, this is not enough. And while we understand that the government had to take immediate drastic action to protect the health of its citizens, it should also be prepared to promptly protect their economic well-being. Response time is crucial, and assistance on the national and local level should be sufficient and sustainable. Many private companies, civic organizations, Church groups and generous individuals had already responded even before the first government food packages became available, and as of this writing, people are still waiting for the announced cash assistance.
Specifically, what I’m wishing for is that the government allocates a dedicated amount in the national budget for immediate assistance to displaced workers in emergencies like what we have today. Local governments should also allocate emergency funds for basic necessities, which they should be able to distribute promptly.
Lastly, I’m hoping that national and world leaders will finally wake up and resolutely take the necessary steps to mitigate climate change, which many agree is the defining issue of our time. Climate change is not only causing more frequent natural disasters, but is also helping spawn and spread infectious diseases that would plague humanity in its wake.
This short postpandemic wish list is primarily addressed to our national and global leaders. I’m also compiling a wish list for us ordinary citizens who have to do our part in healing our sick planet before it becomes comatose. But while this pandemic is still raging, more lessons are still being learned. —CONTRIBUTED