In the face of the pandemic, are they the new breed of political leaders?
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – Four young Philippine mayors may be silently changing the landscape of Philippine politics, considered to be the most corrupt in Asia, by balancing economic and environmental programs in their cities especially at this time of the pandemic.
Manila Mayor Francisco Moreno Domagoso, Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte, Pasig, Mayor Francis Zamora, and Ormoc Mayor Richard Gomez, in a forum organized by the Fil-Am Press Club of New York have articulated their strategies and vision for their cities vis-a-vis the economic and health crises in the Philippines.
The monthly forum in April and May 2021 were co-sponsored by the OrienTours and Philippine Airlines in looking at Philippine Fiestas and culture in the face of the pandemic.
Urban Farming, Securing Food on the Table
In her 14-point development strategy, Belmonte highlighted the urban farming programs of the neighboring Quezon City, a personal advocacy that she started 10 years ago. QC now has 161 farms whose fresh produce is being enjoyed by locals for consumption and commerce. “These farms are now serving not only communities but restaurants and hotels as well,” she said. The city is also considered a healthy lung for NCR because of its sprawling and well-kept natural reserves and parks.
“Quezon City is not really a tourism destination. But we complement our local governments here in the National Capital Region by making the city livable, bikeable, walkable,” Belmonte, the first woman mayor of QC, said.
QC is home to the country’s largest media networks, academic institutions, and culinary destinations. Its one-stop shop business applications and full automation is a factor for its brisk growth.
Despite the pandemic, Belmonte noted that QC posted a 9% economic growth as majority of its businesses are small and medium-sized and have innovated themselves to keep businesses afloat despite the lockdown. The city government readily provided loan packages for these businesses to thrive.
Mayor Gomez also said that early in his term as the mayor of Ormoc City in the Visayas, he had encouraged Ormocanons to undertake home gardening in order to meet their own consumption needs. During the pandemic, these home gardens have very well served the nutritional needs of families.
As an agricultural city, Gomez said that Ormoc farmers have supplied food and vegetables in other parts of Leyte and Cebu despite the pandemic.
Cleanliness and Discipline
Mayor Francisco Moreno Domagoso, better known as Yorme Isko Moreno, one time matinee idol of Philippine Cinema, has strictly enforced cleanliness programs in Manila as well as pragmatic measures of dealing with health protocols. His visible and results-driven leadership as the 22nd mayor of the Philippine capital has earned him the respect of many emergent leaders.
Today, Manila boasts of a clean Manila Bay, notorious for its stench and filth. Moreno however, does not only credit the Bay’s improved cleanliness all to himself, but through the collaborative efforts of the local governments around the Bay.
In the forum, Moreno said he had relentlessly cleaned up the Bay through his ‘estero rangers.’ “I encouraged the sanitation department to continuously clean up. So the people will see what we are doing. That with the government, there is certainty and continuity.”
In two years, the Bay was clean as people who used to throw their garbage into the sea took notice and decided to stop in order to maintain cleanliness, said Moreno. He realized the need to invest in the youth, through their primary education, in order to instill discipline and love of country. “You know that love for country is reflected in the love for the environment,” he quipped.
Large-scale celebrations held back for two years
San Juan City Mayor Francis Zamora, meanwhile said that the celebration of the St. John the Baptist fiesta may not be fully observed on June 24 this year just like last year in order to comply with health protocols. Zamora said that his administration will also hold in abeyance its historical bike tour because of the pandemic. Until a substantial number of people are vaccinated, the city administration will do everything with caution, he noted.
Like the rest of the cities that were on a standstill, the launch of the El Deposito Underground Tunnel water reservoir which is the longest water reservoir during the Spanish colonial rule in Manila was deferred because of the pandemic.
The same is true with Ormoc whose pineapple and light festivals have become widely anticipated events in June. “It is sad but we have to follow health protocols. Right now, Ormoc has just started its inoculation process. So our festivities may resume in two years,” he said during the Kapihan.
Ormoc has a vaccination program using Aztrozeneca for 90% of the population which is scheduled to be rolled out in the middle of the year.
Vaccine as the game changer
Mayor Zamora said that vaccination is the “game changer in the new normal.” San Juan is the smallest city in the NCR but nonetheless a sanctuary of historical sites and traditions. It is host to the largest shopping bazaar in the country, the Greenhills Loop.
Ten percent of the population have been vaccinated in San Juan, so far. Zamora, who was afflicted with coronavirus, said it gave him the platform to assuage fears of many of his constituents against being vaccinated.
During the forum, the mayors were asked if they encouraged the bayanihan practices in their localities despite the military having to paint a suspicion of these being organized by left-leaning organizations.
Gomez was quick to say yes to that, acknowledging that Ormoc had long been encouraging bayanihan at any time of crisis and in this pandemic. Gomez said that community pantry is good, but in Ormoc, the land area is vast, unlike in Metro Manila, so congestion is not a problem.
Belmonte clarified that the community pantries in Quezon City were a result of people who wanted to give to the community. “Hindi lang siguro sanay ang local enforcers na maraming taong gustong magbigay. Siguro tinatawag nilang komunista ang nagbigay dahil sa panawagan na give according to your ability, get according to what you need which was coined by Karl Marx.
But now there are more than 200 community pantries in QC and people just want to give. But we encourage that dahil mataas ang need.”
Zamora said that he had personally supported all community pantries in his city, for as long they strictly comply with health protocols to ensure that “their good deeds don’t mean a surge of infections.”
Balancing Health Care and Economy
Belmonte said that there is need to ensure that the health care system is in place to serve severe cases of covid19 but discouraged long periods of lockdown because the impact on the economy is gargantuan. “We have learned our lessons. We meet every week with the 16 other mayors of the capital region so that we can discuss what we can do.”
For Moreno, life and livelihood must be considered in government. “We can get away with this virus through self-discipline, vaccinated. But we also need to ensure people have their livelihood.”
‘Surgical lockdown’ must be done, particularly a neighborhood or a household, not the entire city, opined Moreno. Manila has rolled out 80% of the 200,000 Sinovac vaccines and 3500 Pfizer vaccines, said Mayor Moreno.
With the national government relying mainly on the donations of vaccines from the US, China, and UK, the vaccination roll-out in the Philippines could take years to finish. Leaders have to contend with Filipinos who complain of a slow roll-out and those who resent being vaccinated.
For Mayor Belmonte, a balanced economy and health measures is another challenge. Asked if she was in favor of long quarantines for foreign travelers, Belmonte said she is personally not in favor of long quarantines because of the limited vacation periods travelers have. “That’s a turn-off for them. If health experts would say it is possible to not have quarantine, then I definitely support that,” she said.
Ormoc City is slowly rolling its sleeves to reopen its economy. According to Mayor Gomez, small entrepreneurs have been encouraged and supported to engage in small businesses in the commercial centers.
In San Juan, the local government has distributed food packs for indigent residents to limit their outdoor engagements to generate much-needed income.
FilAm teacher Ramil Buenaventura asked during the Kapihan how they encourage discipline among their constituents. Mayor Moreno remarked that one cannot teach an old dog new tricks. “I think we need to invest for the future. Start with the young in the primary education system. Kailangan talaga ang love for country. Dyan mag-umpisa ang disiplina. If given the chance, I will invest for the people of tomorrow.”#