Special Report: PHL sinking to low end of Third World countries

By Beting Laygo Dolor

(First of a Series)

MANILA – Multiple signs are indicating that the Philippines – once known as Asia’s Rising Tiger during the term of the late President Benigno Aquino III – has taken a precipitous drop in global rankings in various key categories, sending it back to the category of “Sick Man of Asia.”

The setbacks have come in quick succession in recent months, with the latest being the downgrade of the country’s credit rating outlook by Fitch Ratings to negative from the previous stable, as announced on Monday, July 12.

Fitch blamed the lowering of the country’s outlook to the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which the Philippines has failed to control up to this time.

The Philippines’ coronavirus response has been far from stellar, as can be gleaned from the next to last place ranking it received from Bloomberg, an organization that delivers business and markets news, data analysis, and informative video to global subscribers.

Under Bloomberg’s COVID Resilience Ranking, the country was rated #52 out of 53 countries. Paramount in the organization’s ranking are two metrics, namely the ease of moving in and out of a place, and how much air travel has recovered. There are, however, 10 other measures that track such things as mortality rates, infection counts, freedom of movement, and economic growth, among others.

The Bloomberg ranking was released towards the end of last month. It stated that “the Philippines, India, and some Latin American countries rank lowest amid a perfect storm of variant-driven outbreaks, slow vaccination, and global isolation.”

The only country ranked lower than the Philippines was Argentina, with the two countries being among the bottom four that include Malaysia and India.

Just how poorly the Philippines has fared in vaccinating its population of around 110 million can be seen in this week’s data, which shows that only 9.7 million – that’s less than 10 percent – have received the first of two shots. The percentage who have received the two-shot dose can be considered infinitesimal.

Warning signs were already apparent in the first quarter of this year, when two surveys indicated that the Philippines was falling far behind its neighbors in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In February, the ASEAN Studies Center survey on Government’s Pandemic Response had the Philippines at 10th place among 10 ASEAN countries. (Note: the 11 member-nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Brunei, Myanmar, Laos, and Timor-Leste)

Then, in the following month, in a survey covering more countries of the world, the Lowry Institute COVID Performance Index had the Philippines at the bottom 25 percent. The March 2021 Index had the country at #81 among 102 nations covered by the survey.

The Philippines’ deteriorating status under the Duterte administration cannot be denied.

Earlier this month, international publication Global Finance’s Safety Index listed the Philippines dead last among 134 countries surveyed.

The Philippines had also landed at last place in Global Finance’s same list for 2019.

The New York-based business publication released its World Safest Countries 2021 list last week. The list took into account such factors as war and peace, personal security, and natural disaster risk, including unique factors borne out of the COVID-19 pandemic. In all, 134 countries were covered.

Global Finance saw the Philippines as having serious civil conflict that have high risks from natural disasters, and said that the country may have had a relatively low COVID-19 death toll, but still performed badly in terms of safety overall.

Aside from the Philippines, the other countries which pose similar risks were El Salvador, Nigeria, and Yemen.

Also this month, the media organization Reporters Without Borders included President Duterte in its list of 37 Press Freedom Predators in the world.

The 37 heads of state are all accused of having cracked down massively on press freedom in recent years, with some being on the list for two decades or more.

While there have been numerous instances in the past of print and broadcast journalists being harassed or even killed in the Philippines, it was only under the Duterte administration that the numbers skyrocketed. Also, lawyers and even judges have been assassinated in the country, with most of the killings going unsolved.

The Philippine president stands accused of waging a “total war against independent media.”

Reporters Without Borders said Duterte’s arsenal includes “spurious charges of defamation, tax evasion, or violation of capital registration.”

Under the Duterte regime, broadcast licenses have been rescinded (notably ABS-CBN), accomplices have bought up media outlets, and journalists have been forced to toe the government line “using an army of trolls” to harass them.

This week, half of the 24-member the Senate announced plans to investigate the “troll army” working under the Presidential Communications Operations Office.

The Duterte administration’s economic team has not been spared accusations of failing to perform their duty.

Also last month, the Philippines was back in the list of nations where global money laundering and terrorist financing take place with not enough controls in place to prevent the illicit practice. In particular, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) said the Philippines had failed to address strategic deficiencies to counter both.

The country joined less-than-stable states Malta, Haiti, and South Sudan in the dreaded dirty money list.

It was not the first time that the Philippines had landed on the list, as its erratic fiscal policies had seen it being placed on and off the list since 2000. According to the Paris-based watchdog, the country did not have sufficient power to block money laundering or to pin down individuals engaged in terrorist financing.

Meanwhile, the country’s passport lost its strength further recently, sinking to #82 from #74 last year, according to the Henley Passport Index (HPI). This is the lowest ranking for the country’s main travel document since 2006.

Henley & Partners rates passports based on the total number of destinations a passport holder can visit without need of a visa.

The company is a global citizenship and residence advisory firm that oversees global rankings of countries based on the travel freedom of its passport holders.

The latest ranking covered 199 states.

Philippine passport holders can only visit 66 nations without need of a visa. The current #82 spot pales in comparison to its highest ranking of #62 held from 2007 to 2009.

It has been argued that one good man or woman leading the country can do wonders for its global reputation, the way President Benigno Aquino III raised the country’s standing in the eyes of the world during his six-year term. On the opposite end, a bad or even terrible president can cause serious damage to that reputation, the way President Rodrigo Duterte has done.

Even the negative 9.5 percent gross domestic product growth that the country experienced in 2020 – its worst performance in decades – could still be theoretically reversed very quickly with sound leadership.

Some damage, however, will be more difficult to fix.

One of the worst accusations against the Duterte government has been its lowering the Philippines’ educational standards to the point that the damage caused may take years, or even decades, to correct.

Recent studies have shown that an entire generation of Filipino students have fallen far behind in basic learnings compared with their peers, both in the region and in the world.

(Next week’s conclusion: A pattern of corruption, incompetence, and gross mismanagement)