The Social Amelioration Program

By Lucell Larawan

Upon knowing that the government created the social amelioration program (SAP) to address the COVID-19 pandemic, many needy citizens heaved a sigh. This can give them their daily rice and borot-borot fish to keep them alive while work is strictly limited. The P6,000 support per month will at least lengthen their tolerance of lockdowns, especially among  the poorer sectors. Without support, the ECQ and GCQ can be too harsh and desensitized.

Our leaders could have thought that an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and a general community quarantine (GCQ) would be farcical if people must prioritize their survival needs vis-à-vis compliance; thus they came up with a solution. The rationale: what is the point of ECQs and GCQs if hunger forces people to put them in the backseat?

This is what SAP is created for. Despite how it helps, the SAP solution, however, is a cause celebre.

Last Wednesday, the local government units (LGUs) have already distributed the SAP to 13.6 million recipients out of the targeted 18 million beneficiaries—that is, 75.6 percent of the goal. Too slow in an emergency? In my province, the SAP distribution is still 58 percent complete as of Thursday. The deadline was set on April 30 for the LGUs to finish the first tranche, but it has been moved anew.

Those in the government may not directly feel the misery of the delayed SAP distribution. Why would many of them care? As long as their salaries are secure during the pandemic, they have no worries for their families. But how about the poor?

The reasons for the delay include lack of government personnel who verify the beneficiaries. The task could be monstrous. Because of this, the SAP is still floating in the eighth week of the lockdown. Much prayer is to be done to make it come to the right hands.

So what can the hungry do? Are they now about to run amok?

We hear about barangay captains who seem to have too much discretion in deciding who can receive the SAP. President Duterte initially said he does not want the LGUs to take part in the SAP distribution. He, however, backpedaled and we see how the barangay leaders reject the SAP applications of their political rivals. The headline at the time of this writing shows that 180-plus of these barangay captains face corruption charges for abusing the SAP. Hope to save this graft-ridden strategy is elusive. Isn’t it?

Even with the penalties for mishandling the SAP, the system of distribution is beyond redemption. It incurs needless costs and risks of mishandling that are too high to ignore. The reason: politicians have the free hand to mess it up. The modus is also too slow for an emergency.

President Duterte could have chosen a more reliable means to reach the poor  recipients. However noble his intentions are, the implementation of the SAP is shaky. We cannot expect the lowlifes (not all of them but how many are not?) to suddenly become princes of justice. But then, the SAP is still tossed into the wrong hands. Duterte could have thought that he had no other choice? Really?

I still support the president and may he consider my two cents worth.

If the LGUs are allowed to tinker with the SAP, this becomes another plague. It becomes Special Armory for Politicians. Certain politicians can use it to advance their future career taking advantage of the pandemic. The pain of seeing the money gone is too much to bear. I wonder why the president should be forced to trust the lowlifes.

In lieu of coursing this SAP distribution through the barangay captains, this could have been the route: gather basic information about each citizen by implementing the national ID system. The national ID has been a law. Even with the pandemic stopping most economic activities, the government can still implement the ID system. To gather data, the TELCOS can help us through our mobile phones that is why there is no excuse for delaying what could have saved a lot of trouble. Those who have no mobile phones—only very few of them–can go to their LGUs to register electronically with the assistance of government employees.

To discourage giving wrong information for the national ID, the government can simply include a consequence of perjury for falsification. After the pandemic, verification of the information should be made. With this penalty put in place, the probability of success increases.

If the national ID will have been in place, the government can build a centralized system that cannot be tinkered by the wannabes. This ID system—more robust than what needs political vetting–can then generate the list of qualified beneficiaries based on the specified family income range. The government can then distribute the SAP through banks and express money-sending services, direct to the beneficiaries. Our information technology system can handle this. I see that no excuses are valid to implement a technology-assisted distribution system. Middlemen are not anymore needed to exercise too much discretion to determine heaven or hell for anyone.

And why should the government exclude the lower middle-income group in its amelioration program? How about another aid for the much affected sector? Undeniably, these citizens—the ones who bear much of the taxes—are in the straits. They could not also eat decent meals without support. So this is also my request to the government: please include the lower-middle income citizens in the dole-out. They are struggling, too.

This is now time for these considerations to gain traction. We do not know how many more pandemics or epidemics will come but experts say they are bound to mess up again. Who knows? We do not want to panic anymore if our distribution system will flunk another time.

Immediate action is what is needed to correct the unredeemable blunders of our pandemic support system. “Nine-tenths of wisdom is being wise in time,” Theodore Roosevelt said.