The Philippines is not a poor country
You have people say it over and over again that the Philippines is a poor country, and thus we shouldn’t expect to have the things that richer countries have.
Like good health care, such as that of Canada where, thanks to universal health care, people don’t have to go bankrupt when they have a serious illness. And while its system is not perfect, at least people don’t worry about getting turned away from hospitals when they have an emergency.
Or better transportation, such as that of Japan, which is already building a new maglev shinkansen, even as its existing train system is decades ahead of our decrepit railways. Or that of the Netherlands with its extensive network of bike lanes that enable 24 percent of its population to cycle every day.
Or vaccinations, such as those already being rolled out in the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore, and a growing number of other countries. Alas, after spending months promising that “let’s just wait for the vaccine. It’s almost here,” the President is now citing the Philippines’ being “poor” as an excuse for our having been left behind in terms of procuring and rolling out COVID-19 vaccines.
Now, I do not deny the fact that many Filipinos are poor and that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated our levels of hunger, unemployment, and poverty. And I do not deny the statistical reality that in terms of per capita income, the Philippines ranks 120th in the world alongside the likes of Eswatini and El Salvador.
However, the discourse of us being a poor country is incomplete and inaccurate at best and dangerous at worst, for a number of reasons.
First, saying that the Philippines is a poor country runs against our heritage of wealth and richness, which is why we were colonized and exploited in the first place. From the gold of Butuan to the immense biodiversity of Palawan, from the abundance of the West Philippine Sea to our wealth of human capital, the Philippines — the world’s 27th largest economy today — has held so much richness, but we have not benefited from it. Recognizing our wealth can lead us to aspire for, and demand, better things, while simply accepting that we are “poor” can lead to defeatism and undignified behavior exemplified by the President.
Second, and related to the first, saying that the Philippines is a poor country naturalizes the fact of our people’s poverty, obscuring the violence of its provenance. It is like saying that someone “is dead” when the more accurate way to put it is that “he was murdered.” It allows the people responsible for bankrupting our government and plundering our nation, the literal and figurative Marcoses, to escape accountability.
Third, saying that the Philippines is a poor country sets low expectations for our government, serving as an excuse for incompetence, negligence, and corruption. In fact, our neighbors with similar economic profiles have managed to achieve universal health care, more efficient transport, and a far better response to COVID-19. Consider Indonesia, for instance, which has already acquired vaccines, or Vietnam, which is developing its own vaccine program. As the P50-million cauldron and the inexplicable preference for pricier Chinese vaccines show, the problem is not that the government has no money, but it is using up its money for the wrong things.
Finally, saying we are a poor country flattens our country’s experiences, which are more accurately characterized by inequity, not poverty. Just like the terms “developing” or even “middle income” country — which is how we are officially classified — it hides the obscene wealth, privilege, and impunity enjoyed by a few, and the relative comfort enjoyed by many of us that prevent us from empathizing with the majority. Saying “we are poor” distributes — and dissipates — responsibility, but acknowledging that “we are unequal” raises questions about the unfairness of our society and how this unfairness is perpetuated across generations.
And so the next time you hear people say that “the Philippines is poor,” ask them what exactly they mean in saying so. And in the case of our leaders, ask yourself the possible reasons why they would speak in such terms.
For indeed, we are not a poor country. We are a robbed country. Bear that in mind when our politicians secure millions for themselves but claim that we lack the resources to protect our workers, vaccinate our people, and support those on the long-suffering end of structural inequality and social injustice.
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