10 Lessons from Loay, Bohol on How Local Government Leaders Should Fight Decisively Against the COVID – 19 Pandemic
“Some people ask me why I was very quick to deliver social assistance to people during this crisis. It’s simple. I have experienced myself having nothing. I can easily empathize with what people are experiencing on the ground.”
- Atty. Hilario “Lahar’ Ayuban
Mayor, Loay, Bohol
The COVID-19 crisis that plagues the world is impacting adversely every sector and every individual globally. In the Philippines, the rate of infection has been steadily increasing, partly brought about by the availability of test kits, and the lack of compliance with strict preventive measures. The ability of the country to combat and survive this pandemic is put to the test. Despite the missteps on the part of the national government, local government officials all over the country have been facing the crisis head-on, with some local chief executives finding creative ways to stem the spread of the virus through preventive measures while at the same time temper the economic impacts on the lives of the poor and the vulnerable.
I chanced upon the Facebook page of the Local Government of Loay and was curious about how the fifth class municipality was dealing with the current crisis. There are stellar examples of how local governments elsewhere in the Philippines are dealing with the pandemic, but most of these are megacities with a better financial position as compared others. But how can a town, with limited resources, respond to the demands for protection, safety, and citizen-well being, and lead the fight against COVID-19?
Back in May 2019, I was one of those who were jubilant when a friend of mine, Hilario “Lahar” Ayuban was won as mayor of the town, after a very strategic but gruelling local campaign. Lahar and I met each other for the first time at Holy Name University, at the thick of campus elections. Though we did not belong to the same student political party back then, I have seen how he ran and won based on his principles and convictions. I have seen how he made use of the same set of principles in running his campaign for the mayoralty post – ensuring transparency in his actions, making the voters “feel” what the government and the candidates are doing for them, and displaying integrity and friendliness at the same time.
I spoke with Lahar, er, Mayor Lahar, some days back to talk about how the local government of Loay under his leadership responded to the COVID crisis. As can be recalled, the provincial government of Bohol declared a quarantine on March 13, 2020, for five days and extending it further to April 30 2020. The measure led to the mandatory temporary closure of several businesses and the deliberate decision of some business owners to cease operations despite being exempted from temporary closure. Consequently, it led to the forced but unpaid leave of affected employees. I wanted to know how the local government of Loay, under his leadership, managed to ensure order and safety in the town, as well as provide for affected residents. And this is what I learned:
1. They operationalize the provincial government directives on community quarantine and calibrated lockdown by contextualizing it in their locality through a series of executive orders issued by Municipal Mayor.
On March 13 2020, even before the Provincial Government of Bohol issued Executive Order No. 08 “Declaring a Five-Day Preparation and Institution of Measures to Address the On-Going Threat of COVID 19 to the Island-Province of Bohol”, Mayor Lahar already issued his Executive Order 06 calling for the cancellation of LGU-initiated activities, including meetings, graduations, sports tournaments, among others. Three days after, he also issued Executive Order No. 07 ordering the suspension of operations of Loay’s tourist establishments and requiring a 14-day self-quarantine for returning residents.
On March 17 2020, he also issued Executive Order No 08, ordering the temporary closure of videoke houses, internet cafes, and other recreational businesses centres, and have imposed limited operating hours for commercial and business establishments. There were other regulatory measures that the town set-up, including the implementation of curfew hours from 10 pm to 4 am, as mandated by Municipal Ordinance Number 90-056.
2. They respond early in ensuring that affected workers are provided financial assistance.
Realizing that EO Number 07 negatively impacted the ability of workers to earn, the local government immediately provided rice assistance to affected workers, two days after the effectivity of the Executive Order. This move was very sympathetic to the plight of affected workers and shows how the local government has thought about the negative repercussions of the local government’s decision to close business establishments temporarily.
The assistance to displaced tourism workers continued, and the distribution of food packs for them is now on its third round.
3. They implement safety and security procedures strictly and shows the teeth of the law to offenders.
There were several times that the municipality has ensured that the regulations it issued were followed. For example, on March 15 2020, a fishing boat from the nearby province of Southern Leyte had a broken propeller and was forced to dock at the Loay Port. The local police and coast guard officials were quick to ensure that the boat crew were not able to set foot on Loay soil while docked until the boat was repaired and was able to sail again.
During Easter Sunday, the local authorities were quick to prohibit Easter gatherings on the beaches of Loay and guarded the place all day round. It has been customary in the past that people gather in this area during Easter Sunday celebrations. This was to ensure that social distancing is upheld and the prohibited mass gathering of people is avoided.
Several residents were also apprehended for not following community quarantine regulations. The local government will file a case against them to show that the town will not tolerate violators as this will compromise the safety of everyone. For local candidates seeking re-election, this may not be a good thing to do as this will anger some people who may think that leaders lack compassion in this time of crisis. But Loay’s leadership sought to uphold the rule of law.
4. Because the enhanced community quarantine affected different people in different ways, they institute measures to help those most vulnerable.
To weather the economic impact of the limited movement of people and the closure of several establishments across the province, the municipal government made possible the distribution of food packs to all its 4,000 households. The local government has done it twice since the lockdown was implemented. The local government even distributed one facemask per household, employing at least 10 of its local seamstress to sew them in a week, to hasten household compliance to the provincial directive to wear facemasks in public places.
They were also able to identify quickly those residents of Loay who were stranded elsewhere because of the No-Sail-Policy. As of April 15, they identified 56 Loay residents stranded elsewhere – these were students and workers who were unable to go home because of the lockdown – and provided them cash assistance of Php 3000 each. And for those OFWs who were not able to go back to the countries where they work, the local government also provided them with cash assistance through the SAP.
Sensing also that in the long run, the community quarantine will have repercussions on food security, the Municipal Agriculturist’s Office started to distribute vegetable seeds on March 17 2020. With the same spirit of empathy, the local government has directed the local waterworks office to stop implementing the disconnection of delinquent consumers but has strongly requested those with the capacity to pay to be prompt in settling their accounts.
5. They ensured that they properly survey the households of the town to fully assess the situation of its residents and get help to those who need them.
Loay leaders, including Mayor Lahar himself, went to the households during the first time that the municipality distributed food packs. The intention was to ensure that distribution followed social distancing protocols as well as ensure that messages from the local government are reaching citizens. It also provided an opportunity for the mayor to converse with households and assess the situation.
When the national government sought the assistance of local governments for the implementation of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) – to distribute between Php5000 – Php 8000 of emergency assistance package to residents, the local government initiated consultations with all barangay captains and purok (village) officials even during the Holy Week. The consultations were intended to identify the households that will be given SAP allowances properly.
The SAP program is only for those who are qualified based on defined requirements laid out by the Department of Social Welfare and Development and knowing the condition of the households was crucial in determining those who will likely not receive assistance. The municipality was also quick to identify those that will not be covered by the program who also needed help, and released Php2,100,000 to be used to give Php 3,000 to households that need assistance but are excluded by the SAP program.
6. They regularly communicate with their residents through online and offline means.
The local government ensured that they communicate regularly their programs to residents. They extensively used Facebook to communicate information online and respond to citizen concerns that were posted in its official accounts. They made use of their local officials as communicators of the program and printed guidelines and regulations for posting in public spaces. They are fully aware that getting the information out is crucial not only to ensure compliance of citizens to governmental regulations but also to provide assistance to the neediest and promote transparency in governmental activities and transactions.
When there was a public clamour for an explanation of why they were excluded from the list of SAP beneficiaries, the Office of the Mayor conducted two days of consultations with affected households that lasted till evening. The intention was to gather all comments, address citizen concerns, and respond appropriately, given the local government resources.
7. They ensured transparency in all the processes in their COVID-19 response programs.
When they launched several of the programs – they informed people about them adequately. For example, they launched a massive information campaign to be able to identify Loay residents that were stranded elsewhere in the country. When they were able to identify the first batch of beneficiaries, they posted their names in social media as well as in bulletin boards, along with the photographs/copies of the money remittance advise bearing the beneficiaries name.
Likewise, for the SAP distribution, they posted the list of beneficiaries both offline and online so that all people will know who are those that were selected as beneficiaries for the SAP program based on the set criteria. This is to show that there was no favouritism in the selection of beneficiaries and that processes of selection, while not perfect because of time constraints, were implemented equitably.
8. They are quick to allocate resources to identified needs and carefully studies their cash position to ensure that they can respond proactively.
As of December 31, 2019, Loay’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) Fund Utilization Report shows an ending balance of over Php5 million with an expected 2020 allocation for at least Php5 million. Its projected 2020 20% Development Fund is a little over Php15 million, while there are still unspent allocations for different programmatic activities that may no longer be relevant to the current situation. The local government studied its annual budget and identified sources from which the current initiatives to respond to the pandemic could be funded. Its prioritization ethic is put to the test.
They exhausted all of its DRRM funds, passed a supplemental budget of 3 million, and made use of the one-month additional Internal Revenue Allotment released by the national government. If funds are still needed, the local government is ready to pass another supplemental budget and make use of its 20% development funds to continue the social programs started. “If the worst is yet to come, God forbid, we will not allow a Loayanon to go hungry.”, Mayor Lahar said.
9. It is not just the mayor’s job. It is a product of teamwork.
As you may have noticed, I used the pronoun “they” instead of “he”. Mayor Lahar was very incisive that all these did not happen because of him alone. These were made possible because all of the people working in the local government cooperated. The Sangguniang Bayan (local legislative council), for example, approved the supplemental budget and supported the mayor in all the programs. The barangay captains used the resources of their barangay to give grocery packages to their residents, alternating with the schedule of the provision from the municipal government. Everyone did their share, even private individuals who also donated resources to help those in need.
10. The people need not thank the government for all this. It is the people’s taxes that are working for them.
When Loay residents thanked the Mayor and said to him that they are indebted to him for the help they received, he always emphasized to them that such is not the case. “You are not indebted to us. These resources are your money – your taxes. We are just instruments to ensure that you receive and can feel the services of government that you rightfully deserved.”, he would say.
Like other scholars, I believe that this fight against COVID 19 finds hope at the local level, but only when local leaders are proactive in dealing with the crisis, thinking steps ahead and focusing on the long-term needs while curtailing infection in the short-term. The case of Loay shows that stemming the tide of the virus’ transmission along with appropriate social protection measures are significant steps towards ensuring that the battle is won. We hope that Mayor Lahar and his team in Loay will continue their good work and be a shining example to other leaders in Bohol.