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In this pandemic, Duterte has his priorities all wrong | Business and Economy



In the past couple of weeks, community pantries have mushroomed all over the Philippines. The poor, left with no other options, formed long lines in the summer heat, under threat of COVID-19, just to get what the government of President Rodrigo Duterte has so far failed to give: economic aid.

The sudden growth of community pantries mirrors not just the extent of the Philippines’ economic crisis but also the extent of the government’s neglect. Total output, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), plunged by 9.5 percent in 2020, the Philippines’ worst economic slump since World War II. Gross per capita income plummeted to 2015 levels. Countless businesses, especially small ones, were forced to shut down and cut their workers’ wages. Joblessness skyrocketed, and more than three million Filipinos remained unemployed by March this year.

The poor were hit especially hard. A whopping six in 10 Filipino households went hungry by the end of 2020, and as many as 5.5 million Filipinos could be pushed into poverty if the government fails to provide them with enough aid.

The Philippines was also hit the hardest among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, suffering the region’s worst economic contraction and the highest unemployment rate. The Philippines is also recovering the slowest.

Duterte’s economic managers liked to tout the Philippines’ strong macroeconomic fundamentals before the pandemic. But with all the economic indicators going haywire, that is all but a distant memory now.

A botched pandemic response

The current recession, the first in about three decades, stems from the fact that the Duterte government has miserably failed to contain COVID-19 and mitigate its effects.

Unlike countries like Vietnam, in the Philippines, there was no prompt government action to stem the spread of the virus. The government imposed strict lockdowns last year but in the meantime, failed to boost the capacity of the health system to cope with an epidemic. This partly led to the steep rise of COVID-19 cases in April, which forced Duterte to put the capital region and nearby provinces under strict lockdown. This hurt the economy even more.

The Philippines was also the last country in Southeast Asia to start its vaccination programme. To begin with, Duterte’s pandemic task force was woefully ill-prepared. While Congress authorised ₱82.5bn ($1.7bn) to buy the vaccines, only ₱2.5 billion ($50m) of that is readily available for use. The bulk of it, ₱70 billion ($1.45bn), is like an unfunded cheque parked separately under “unprogrammed appropriations”, while the rest (₱10 billion, $200m) is a standby fund which the finance department is still scrambling to bankroll.

The ball was again dropped when the vaccine indemnification law was belatedly enacted. Vaccine manufacturers demanded extra protection from possible lawsuits – likely because of the highly politicised vaccine campaign against dengue fever a few years back. Despite being aware of this indemnity condition, Duterte’s task force informed Congress too late. In doing so, the vaccine rollout was needlessly delayed and the Philippines lost out to other countries in securing vaccine supplies from manufacturers besides Sinovac.

As of May, some 7.7 million vaccine doses have arrived from donations and purchases, but vaccination is still moving at a snail’s pace. Unable to solve bottlenecks in procurement, logistics and administration, the Duterte government keeps missing its own targets. Not even Duterte’s czars know precisely when the next doses will arrive. And to make matters worse, about a third of Filipinos still refuse to be vaccinated.

Scrimping on aid

More and more countries are realising that, besides the need to beef up health systems, economic recovery should be driven by fiscal stimulus. Governments ought to actively, strategically spend to make sure that their economies do not collapse while responding to the pandemic.

But it is painfully clear that the Philippine government’s fiscal response is not just wanting in size but also focused on the wrong things.

The Philippines has spent too conservatively relative to the extent of its economic crisis. According to the International Monetary Fund, last year Singapore dedicated about 18 percent of its GDP to its fiscal response, followed by Thailand (9.6 percent), Malaysia (4.9 percent), Indonesia (3.8 percent) and Vietnam (3.6 percent). The Philippines, by contrast, budgeted a measly 3.1 percent.

Duterte’s scrimping is also painfully evident in the misguided priorities in the 2021 budget: there is no substantial funding for aid and economic relief, like the cash transfers granted last year. Instead, the government set aside nearly a quarter of its ₱4.5 trillion ($93bn) budget for infrastructure, particularly patronage-driven projects, like local roads and multipurpose buildings, that will likely figure in next year’s general elections. In short, it is a business-as-usual budget, and poor Filipinos continue to be the least of the government’s worries.

In the pre-State of the Nation Address (pre-SONA) forum in April, government officials also emphasised the continuation of their infrastructure project called “Build, Build, Build”, and highlighted measures that will mainly help corporations and big business. In particular, they trumpeted a trio of trickle-down economic policies which will lower corporate income tax rates, help banks offload bad loans, and address the liquidity and solvency problems of firms.

Some lawmakers are pushing for a new stimulus package, called “Bayanihan 3”, that will give massive economic relief to low-income households, disadvantaged workers, farmers and fisherfolk, among others. But the economic managers have thumbed it down for months, claiming that the government ought instead to spend the 2021 budget and leftover funds from the two stimulus packages passed last year. They also argue that massive aid could not be paid for since additional borrowings may hurt the country’s credit ratings.

Such unreasonable scrimping has not just produced watered-down and ineffective quarantine measures – leading to infection spikes that overwhelm the country’s health system – but also a dearth of economic relief, pushing more and more Filipinos into poverty. The Duterte government also failed to address another pandemic (African swine fever) which has recently stoked food inflation and worsened economic misery.

No wonder private-sector volunteers all over the nation have banded together to organise community pantries, and taken food and aid distribution into their own hands. Although celebrated as a modern-day incarnation of the revered “bayanihan” or Filipino community spirit, these community pantries are also a damning indictment of the president and his cabinet’s failure to lead in this time of crisis.

Give more aid

There is an urgent need to pass Bayanihan 3 that will authorise massive economic aid, specifically cash transfers to the most vulnerable sectors of society, jobs assistance for the unemployed and wage subsidies for small businesses. This package must also make sure that beneficiary families are able to pay for expenses and debts they incurred over the past year or so.

Vaccine procurement and administration also need to be fast-tracked, with a focus on effective diplomacy to secure adequate vaccine supply.

The Philippines is desperate for an economic rebound, but considerable uncertainty still hangs in the air. Absent a significantly ramped-up health system, the economy will continue to stumble. For millions of Filipinos – especially living hand to mouth daily – the future looks as bleak as ever.

In the coming months, the nation’s attention will inevitably shift toward the 2022 elections and government officials will increasingly be preoccupied with politics. But there is still time to reprioritise spending to address Filipinos’ urgent needs – food, cash aid and vaccines, rather than wasteful roads and multipurpose buildings.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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New Zealand’s Hubbard selected as first transgender Olympian | LGBTQ News




Laurel Hubbard, 43, will compete in the super-heavyweight women’s event in Tokyo.

Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics after being selected by New Zealand for the women’s event at the Tokyo Games, a decision set to test the ideal of fair competition in sport.

New Zealand Olympic Committee chief Kereyn Smith said 43-year-old Hubbard – who was assigned male at birth but transitioned to female in 2013 – had met all the qualification criteria for transgender athletes.

“We acknowledge that gender identity in sport is a highly sensitive and complex issue requiring a balance between human rights and fairness on the field of play,” Smith said in a statement.

Hubbard will compete in the super-heavyweight 87-kg category after showing testosterone levels below the threshold required by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The 43-year-old had competed in men’s weightlifting competitions before transitioning.

“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” Hubbard, an intensely private person who rarely speaks to the media, said in a statement issued by the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) on Monday.

Hubbard has been eligible to compete at Olympics since 2015, when the IOC issued guidelines allowing any transgender athlete to compete as a woman provided their testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months before their first competition.

Some scientists have said the guidelines do little to mitigate the biological advantages of people who have gone through puberty as males, including bone and muscle density.

Advocates for transgender inclusion argue the process of transition decreases that advantage considerably and that physical differences between athletes mean there is never a truly level playing field.

Save Women’s Sport Australasia, an advocacy group for women athletes, criticised Hubbard’s selection.

“It is flawed policy from the IOC that has allowed the selection of a 43-year-old biological male who identifies as a woman to compete in the female category,” the group said in a statement.

Weightlifting has been at the centre of the debate about the fairness of transgender athletes competing against women, and Hubbard’s presence in Tokyo could prove divisive.

Her gold medal wins at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa, where she topped the podium ahead of Samoa’s Commonwealth Games champion Feagaiga Stowers, triggered outrage in the host nation.

Samoa’s weightlifting boss said Hubbard’s selection for Tokyo would be like letting athletes “dope” and feared it could cost the small Pacific nation a medal.

Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen said last month allowing Hubbard to compete at Tokyo was unfair for women and “like a bad joke”.

Australia’s weightlifting federation sought to block Hubbard from competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast but organisers rejected the move.

Hubbard was forced to withdraw after injuring herself during competition, and thought her career was over.

“When I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was advised that my sporting career had likely reached its end,” Hubbard said on Monday, thanking New Zealanders.

“But your support, your encouragement, and your aroha (love) carried me through the darkness.”

Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand President Richie Patterson said Hubbard had worked hard to come back from the potentially career-ending injury.

“Laurel has shown grit and perseverance in her return from a significant injury and overcoming the challenges in building back confidence on the competition platform,” he said.

Hubbard is currently ranked 16th in the world in the super heavyweight category.

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Apple Daily could shut ‘in days’ after Hong Kong asset freeze | Freedom of the Press News




Company adviser says action under security law means it cannot access some $50 million in funds to pay staff and vendors.

Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily will be forced to shut “in a matter of days” after authorities used the national security law imposed by China to freeze the company’s assets as it arrested the paper’s editor and four other directors, an adviser to jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai told Reuters on Monday.

Mark Simon, speaking by phone from the United States, said the company was no longer able to access its funds and would be holding a board meeting on Monday to discuss how to move forward.

“We thought we’d be able to make it to the end of the month,” Simon told the news agency. “It’s just getting harder and harder. It’s essentially a matter of days.”

His comments signal closure is imminent even after Apple Daily said on Sunday the freezing of its assets had left the newspaper with cash for “a few weeks” for normal operations.”

The news comes two days after editor Ryan Law, 47, and chief executive Cheung Kim-hung, 59, were denied bail after being charged under the security law with collusion with foreign forces.

Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief Ryan Law arrives back at the detention centre after he was remanded in custody on Saturday [Lam Yik/Reuters]

Three other senior executives were also arrested last Thursday when 500 police officers raided the newspaper’s offices in a case that has drawn condemnation from Western nations, human rights groups and the chief United Nations spokesperson for human rights.

The three have been released on bail.

Simon told Reuters it had become impossible to conduct banking operations.

“Vendors tried to put money into our accounts and were rejected. We can’t bank. Some vendors tried to do that as a favour. We just wanted to find out and it was rejected,” he said.

Speaking earlier to US news channel CNN, Simon said the company had about $50 million available, but was unable to access the funds.

The publisher has come under increasing pressure since its owner Jimmy Lai was arrested under the national security law last August, which marked the first time the company’s headquarters was raided. Lai, 73, is now jailed and facing trial under the national security law. In May, the authorities also froze some assets belonging to the longtime critic of Beijing has also had some of his assets frozen.

Three companies related to Apple Daily are also being prosecuted for collusion with a foreign country and authorities have frozen HK$18 million ($2.3 million) of their assets.

China imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last June saying it was necessary to restore “stability” to a territory that had been rocked by mass protests in 2019, some of which turned violent.

The broadly-worded law criminalises acts such as subversion, sedition, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life imprisonment, but critics have said it is being used to suppress legitimate political debate with dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists among the more than 100 arrested since it was brought into force.

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Birmingham Classic: Ons Jabeur beats Daria Kasatkina to win first title




Tunisian second seed Ons Jabeur defeated Russia’s Daria Kasatkina in straight sets to win her first singles title at the Birmingham Classic.

World number 24 Jabeur triumphed 7-5 6-4 against the fourth seed to become the first Arab woman to win a WTA title.

In Berlin, Russian qualifier Liudmila Samsonova stunned Swiss fifth seed Belinda Bencic to win her first title.

The 22-year-old world number 106 battled back from a set down to win 1-6 6-1 6-3 in her first final.

Victories for Jabeur and Samsonova mean there have now been 10 first-time singles winners on the women’s Tour this year.

Jabeur broke Kasatkina’s serve three times to prevail in the first set, before successive breaks at the start of the second put the 26-year-old in control at 4-0.

Two-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist Kasatkina recovered to 4-3, but Jabeur held on to win a singles final at the third attempt.

It was a breakthrough week for Samsonova in Germany, during which she also defeated seventh seed Victoria Azarenka of Belaurus in the semi-final.

World number 12 Bencic won the first five games as she dominated the opening set, but Samsonova matched that feat in the second before completing her comeback with breaks in the first and ninth games in the deciding set.

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