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The COVID-19 pandemic has had an overwhelming impact on poverty and inequality, with vulnerable and marginalized groups, including less educated individuals, temporary workers, vulnerable women, the elderly, persons with disabilities, displaced migrants, and indigenous peoples, the most affected.

The pandemic’s ill effects cut across sectors. Businesses were forced to close, reduce their workforce, or cut down work hours, directly hitting daily-wage and temporary workers. Children, especially those from low-income households, suffered from the sudden shift to distance learning delivered either    online     or     using    self-study

learning modules. They bore the brunt of prolonged school closures, which translate to a significant learning loss that may be irreversible.

A 2020 study of PIDS authored by Senior Research Fellow Valerie Gilbert Ulep noted the decline in inpatient care among children during the pandemic and the largest drop in medical claims seen among indigents. According to Ulep, this meant that the pandemic limited the poor’s access to health services, which was also evidenced by the drop in consultations in rural health units among the vulnerable populations. The coverage of critical public health programs, such as HIV testing, diagnosis and treatment, and TB-DOTS, also declined. Ulep said the deterioration in healthcare services could be attributed to reduced income, mobility restrictions, overrun health facilities, and reallocation of resources during the pandemic.

The pandemic’s extreme and disproportionate impacts on the poor and vulnerable magnified and exacerbated the deep-seated structural inequities and injustices in society. Breaking these structural inequities and working toward a more just society are essential to successfully recover from the current pandemic and build the country’s resilience to future shocks. Moving forward requires making social justice the front and center of the post-COVID-19 recovery plan.

In the Philippines, the concept of social justice is not something new. The 1987 Constitution frames the promotion of social justice as a commitment to create equitable opportunities, reduce social-economic and political inequalities, and remove cultural inequities.

In Article 13 of the 1987 Constitution of the Philippine Republic. Sections 1 and 2 stated the following:

“The promotion of social justice shall include the commitment to create economic opportunities based on freedom of initiative and self-reliance.”

Also, social justice is the bedrock of many international declarations, in which the Philippines is a signatory, such as the Charter of the United Nations (UN), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Human Rights, the Copenhagen Declaration, and the UN Millennium Declaration among others. These declarations push for equality in political and civil rights, particularly in eliminating all forms of discrimination and allowing for equal access to opportunities and acceptable living conditions.

Moreover, social justice is enshrined in the country’s development blueprints—the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) and the Ambisyon Natin 2040. The latter represents the long-term vision and aspirations of the Filipino people for the next 25 years. It serves as the anchor for development planning across administrations toward having a strongly rooted, comfortable, and secure life by 2040. It envisions a more equitable income distribution from broad-based economic growth and resilience of the poor to shocks.

Given this background, this year’s DPRM celebration carries the theme, “#CloseTheGap: Accelerate Post-pandemic Recovery through Social Justice”, or in Filipino,#AlisinAngAgwat: Pabilisin ang Pag-ahon Mula sa Pandemya sa Pamamagitan ng Katarungang Panlipunan. Through this theme, we wish to highlight how the pandemic exacerbated existing socioeconomic disparities in the country and disproportionately affected the vulnerable and marginalized sectors of society. Hence, to make opportunities equitable, reduce socioeconomic and political inequalities, and remove cultural inequities, we must make social justice a guiding principle of the country’s post-pandemic recovery plan, particularly in three areas: human capital development and social protection, public health services and infrastructure, and environmental resilience.

Human capital development and social protection

The observed disparities along geographical and income divides have widened and deepened due to the pandemic. This has been seen in the education sector. The abrupt transition to distance learning came at a cost to poor students, those in remote areas, and those without access to online resources, exacerbating existing socioeconomic disparities. To remedy this, there is an urgent need to design modes of education delivery that are sensitive to the needs of learners, especially those from low-income households. Under the new normal, policymakers and education providers must ensure that all students—regardless of economic background, gender, location, disabilities, and other considerations—have access to quality education. Given the importance of information and communications technology (ICT) as a tool for delivering education and accessing information, it is also crucial to address the digital divide—or the gap between those with have access to ICT and those who have not—to ensure that everyone has equal access to learning opportunities and resources.

In the labor sector, low-wage and subsistence workers suffer the brunt of the pandemic. It resulted in reduced incomes due to job losses or reduced work hours. Essential workers on subsistence wages faced significant exposure to COVID-19. With little or no financial security, they had no choice but to continue working. Improving the design, targeting, and implementation of social protection programs is essential to protect vulnerable workers from sudden job disruptions. Retooling and retraining the workforce and preparing current students for new normal and future jobs is also crucial. The digital transformation has intensified in the new normal, putting a premium on workers with digital and soft skills.

Public health services and infrastructure

The COVID-19 pandemic has further reinforced the deep-seated health disparity in the country as COVID-19 has unequally affected the poor and vulnerable segments of the population. While health services were generally limited during the height of the pandemic, affluent Filipinos were able to access healthcare services, including life-saving diagnostics and drugs. Meanwhile, the poor segment of the population was more at risk of infection because they were less likely to adhere to health protocols because of their physical and environmental challenges. These disparities in health outcomes that have existed before the pandemic and have worsened during the pandemic are a reminder that socioeconomic position is a foundational determinant of health and that a country cannot improve the health outcomes of its citizens without addressing the underlying maldistribution of wealth, opportunities, and privilege within a society.

Ensuring that vulnerable and marginalized groups have access to quality and affordable health services, including medicines, at all times is key to promoting social justice in health. Moreover, policymakers should push for increased investments in health programs that directly address the well-being of the population, such as programs on immunization, reproductive health, and communicable and noncommunicable diseases. Also, it is crucial to adopt a lifecycle approach to health care. This means making quality health care accessible and affordable to all at every stage of life, from birth to old age.

Environmental resilience

Environmental justice is an integral part of social justice. In the same light, climate change and disaster risk vulnerabilities are fundamental environmental justice issues. The erosion of ecological integrity in critical and environmentally sensitive areas compounds socioeconomic vulnerabilities. These primarily affect those residing in rural communities, including farmers and fisherfolk.  Indigenous peoples bear the brunt of the negative externalities of environment-related human activities, given their limited access to support services and facilities.

Promoting social justice requires protecting local communities from environmentally destructive activities that endanger their safety and well-being and violate their human rights. The health and well-being of all should be a paramount concern of policymakers and program implementers; thus, they should be incorporated into all policies. Assessing the potential impacts on health of proposed infrastructure, housing, and environmental projects before they are undertaken is important to reduce the likelihood of unintended consequences. Lastly, there is a need to boost the participation of vulnerable and marginalized groups in policy discourse and decisionmaking to ensure their voices are heard. This can be done by strengthening government-civil society engagement and intensifying the use of bottom-up approaches.

Applying social justice in our policies, plans, and programs should be premised on a holistic approach that sees the organic and functional interrelationship between and among the different sectors of society and recognizes that the inequities experienced by vulnerable and marginalized groups affect the whole of society as these inequities hamper the attainment of broad-based, inclusive, and sustainable development.

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