SONA, in the flesh

There were two SONAs (State of the Nation Address) which I was fortunate enough to witness in the flesh, in the August session hall of the Batasang Pambansa in Quezon City. I was then the Secretary of the Department of Tourism, appointed by Pres. Joseph E. Estrada.

The SONA is a solemn, ceremonious annual event where the nation’s lawmakers in the company of the Cabinet, the Diplomatic Corp, heads of numerous government corporations, leaders of churches and congregations, eminent members of the private sector are gathered, by invitation, to listen to the President’s report about his/her achievements and future objectives. Unwittingly, It is also an annual fashion extravaganza that belies poverty in the Philippines

Not everyone is invited to the SONA, the gates are closed to those who live the nation’s problems in the flesh. Avowed activists of the labor, transportation, educational and agricultural sectors, militant NGOs of indigent masses are never invited to vent their own views of the state of this nation.

The president and entourage are usually flown to the Batasan in government aircraft while others are chauffeured in official vehicles with bodyguards. Tri-media practitioners are given strategic places and vantage points, they make ambush interviews, record sound bytes, and snap unguarded moments. It must be more fun now with iPhones, tablets, selfies, etc. My fellow cabinet members used to tease, “ If you want press coverage, stand beside Gemma.”

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr, (PBBM) delivered his second SONA on 24 July. Because of his youth and experience with local government (as governor of Ilocos Norte), I was hoping he would establish a trend by unabashedly acknowledging the gravest problem we face as a nation, before heralding the accomplishments of his two years in office.

Frankly, I wanted PBBM to start by saying something like this: There are disturbing reports about Filipino children whom Dr. Jose Rizal called the hope of the Fatherland. In the first two years of their lives, 12.3 percent are underweight while 7.2 percent are already wasted. In the medical sense, wasting is acute malnutrition caused by periods of undernutrition, lack of sanitation that results in wastage of muscles and fat tissues; a malnourished and wasted child is also a stunted child, his height-to-weight ratio is below accepted standards. What about the child’s brain? These go beyond health problems. These are socio- economic issues caused by dire poverty.

The 2020 Census conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority revealed that 11 million children aged 0 to 4 are malnourished, stunted and wasted. The DOH reported that 21.6 percent of infants and toddlers are stunted and that this had plateaued in the last ten years. The other end of the spectrum is obesity, strangely enough. With no access to nutritious food, children who are now physically inactive are given junk food so they become obese. If it is any consolation, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have the same malnutrition and obesity problems. Most of the 17 million stunted children of the Asian region live in the Philippines and Indonesia; 49 percent subsist in rural areas while the rest dwell in urban centers. That is why I decided to take the helm of the Department of Agriculture because malnutrition, stunting and wasting are socio-economic problems that have to be addressed not only by the President’s Office but other departments of the government.

Had PBBM mentioned our problems first, it would have given more context to his success stories of boosting local agricultural production through the consolidation, modernization, mechanization and improvement of value chains augmented by timely and calibrated importation. In the SONA, he said the Department of Agriculture raised food security by 2.2 percent by using scientific methods, minding the balance of nature so production is sustainable enough to benefit present and future generations. He asked Congress to amend the Fisheries Code to include science-based analysis. By clustering farm and fisheries and livestock multiplier farms, there are already 300 clusters of 900 cooperatives. .PBBM has also revived Kadiwa.

A Department of Water Resources and Management will be created with an allocation of Php 14.6 billion for water supply projects like the 6,000 rainwater collection systems across the country in preparation for El Niño and the first Wawa Bulk Water Supply for the NCR and Rizal province.

The “Build, Better, More” with an initial budget of Php 8.3 trillion is by far the most spectacular of PBBM’s programs as it envisions the physical connectivity of this archipelago not only by farm-to-market roads but by inter-island bridges, a railway system that will take provincial travel to astounding levels, air and maritime ports, more expressways, skyways and a network of subways. That should have a positive impact on the poverty problem. What will PBBM’s third SONA be like?