Philippine business groups met last May 28, 2021 to put a working framework on how best to ease the country back into economic normalcy following the downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This was shared by Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship and Go Negosyo Founder Joey Concepcion following separate consultations with different business groups.
Central to the meeting held via an online platform was the prospects of herd immunity for NCR-plus, and the implementation of a vaccine card which will be used to identify those who have received their COVID-19 shots. Present during the meeting were leaders of various industry groups, including the Restaurant Owners of the Philippines (Resto PH), Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), International Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Philippine Hotel Owners Association (PHOAI), Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry, Philippine Retailers Association (PRA), Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce (FICCI), and Philippine Franchise Association, as well as representatives from Philippine Airlines (PAL), SM Supermalls and JG Summit.
There was consensus that current efforts to revive the country’s economy can benefit from more input from the private sector. “Businesses can operate granularly and react quickly to the situation on the ground,” said PCCI’s George Barcelon. Approaches on how to arrive at safely reopening businesses can also be informed by specific input from businesses themselves.
Furthermore, GoNegosyo’s Concepcion believes that given the twin challenges of a slow vaccine rollout and vaccine hesitancy among Filipinos, it may still be possible to jumpstart the economy safely if the country focuses instead on achieving herd immunity in the NCR-plus area and in top tourist destinations around the country, spurring greater mobility for the vaccinated to go and help bring businesses back to health. “The NCR-plus area comprises around 25 million people. Achieving herd immunity before the end of the year is doable if we focus on the NCR-plus area,” he said.
The group also agreed that reviving businesses and restoring livelihood has now become an urgent matter. There are estimates that returning to 2019 pre-COVID economic levels, for example, will only happen by 2025, “which is unacceptable,” said RestoPH’s Eric Teng, whose members in the restaurant business have suffered gravely because of the lockdowns.
"When a business dies, when livelihood is gone, it is harder to revive them,” said PCCI’s Barcelon. “We have to balance [protecting] life and livelihood,” he said.
Concepcion added that economic resurgence can also be achieved if immunizations are focused on tourist island destinations like Boracay, Siargao and Panglao because it would be possible for these places to accept vaccinated domestic and foreign visitors alike. Island destinations also make it easier for authorities to monitor and regulate movement on the island, and guard against possible outbreaks. The concept of a “green lane”, coupled with herd immunity and relaxed quarantine rules for vaccinated tourists, will be needed if the Philippines is to revive the country’s hotels and resorts, according to PHOAI’s Arthur Lopez.
"Herd immunity in these strategically chosen areas will already be a big boost in giving confidence to struggling businesses,” Concepcion explained. “Furthermore, our bankers will see that we are on track and will start to lend more aggressively.”
Concepcion said there is a need to focus the allocation of the country’s vaccine supply until there is clarity on the arrival dates for the AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novovax, and Covaxin vaccines. The meeting among the business groups is in anticipation of the arrival of vaccines in the coming months, including those secured by Concepcion’s “A Dose of Hope'' initiative, in which the private sector, vaccine manufacturers and the government expedited the vaccine procurement process for the Philippines and made it possible for the private sector to secure COVID-19 vaccines. Half of these vaccines are to be donated to frontliners, and the other allocated for private sector employees.
The meeting also served as a venue to thresh out the details of the proposed vaccine cards. Concepcion said that the use of vaccine cards will be a big boost in overcoming vaccine hesitancy among Filipinos. “I believe greater mobility should be given to those who take the vaccine. Seniors will be able to go out, domestic travelers will not be required to do PCR tests or eliminate if not reduce their quarantine time, and restaurants can take on more customers provided the additional people are those who have been vaccinated,” he said. PAL’s Ria Domingo agrees, saying, “A vaccine card can start domestic tourism, and with international standardization, we can align [travel rules] with other countries,” she said.
ICC’s Jess Varela said there already exist templates of successful implementations of vaccine cards in countries like Spain and Singapore which the Philippines can follow; but he, like Domingo, emphasized the need for standardization. “The process takes time so we should have standardized [vaccine] certificates that are aligned with global standards so we don’t have to play catch-up. Now is the time to start using these templates that are aligned globally,” Varela said.
Concepcion agreed, and pointed out that the various LGU vaccine cards now being issued need to be harmonized into a form that can be implemented on a national level using a standardized format. He said that a similar system with senior citizen cards has already been successfully rolled out, and that vaccine cards can be possible if the program is implemented strategically and in phases starting with the NCR-plus area.
The general agreement among the business groups was that vaccine cards should be in a digital form so that data can be centralized with the national government, and that the cards should be able to resist forgery and can take into account future vaccinations against mutations or variants of COVID-19. To this end, Rex Daryanani of FICCI thinks the country’s IT/BPO sector can lend its expertise to the government.
On the issue of discrimination arising from the use of vaccine cards and how this would impact businesses, Varela said the issuance of vaccine cards should be viewed as a process separate from the vaccination itself. RestoPH’s Teng, meanwhile, believes that a vaccine card is a key to let people in, not keep people out, while PRA’s Rosemarie Ong thinks that as the country waits for herd immunity and the implementation of the vaccine card, people should be incentivized to take the vaccine and restrictions should be eased for those who cannot be inoculated as yet.
For now, Teng believes that restaurants can safely expand capacity by allowing vaccinated customers to be added on top of the current 20 percent capacity. Relaxing restrictions on vaccinated senior citizens can also help restaurants get back on their feet, he said, adding that restaurants have already initiated their own “bakuna benefits” which grants discounts and freebies to vaccinated customers.
For his part, Concepcion said that those who are not willing to take the vaccine should not stand in the way of greater mobility for everyone else. “It’s clear that those who are able to protect themselves and others should be granted greater mobility. They will be the ones to help us open the economy safely,” he said.