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Effects of COVID-19 in the infrastructure sector

Although the world has seen different effects on the infrastructure sector, it seems that the Philippines has laid in place its infrastructure boom at the right time, at least. But the true indicator of the sector’s success lies on which direction the country would be going after the pandemic.

During the stringent lockdowns of last year, it probably made the job of the road (and generally the infrastructure) sector easier given the lower traffic volumes. Road condition inspections would be easier and hazards are kept at the minimum. Construction work can go in full swing for as long as occupational safety and pandemic-responsive measures are in place. It is no wonder that the country’s Build Build Build program, as experts believe, could be the last hope in keeping the Philippine economy afloat.

Mid-March of 2020, the World Road Association (PIARC) has established a COVID-19 Response Team considering the potentials of severe disruption in the road transport sector. This team was primarily aiming to rapidly share knowledge and practice between PIARC members in terms of pandemic impacts, associated economic and social crisis and the relevant responses. The team has summarized their discussions into one report which included key conclusions and recommendations as the pandemic continues into 2021.

The main concern, according to the report, was that road transport systems are crucial considering the strong dependence of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) like the Philippines which rely on roads for land transport. In the Philippine context, goods travel primarily on roads which are linked by our nautical highway systems. Most transit systems are also concentrated in Metro Manila while the rest of the country’s movement depend on roads.

Common in the discussion of LMICs was that adopting measures employed by High-Income Countries may not be feasible. PIARC cites the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Policy Brief No. 86 that the “COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing global economic crisis are on the course to reverse years of gains in the reduction and alleviation of poverty, thus drastically undermining global efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goal deadline of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030”. The report further highlights that this may not be the case in all as some countries in Southeast Asia are relatively less affected by the pandemic except for Indonesia and the Philippines which have fairly higher fatalities than their peers.

The association also underscores continuity of road works. For countries like Colombia, infrastructure was a “country priority”. Supply chains for the inputs and materials of infrastructure projects are also given priority to keep the projects running for completion. The South American country of Paraguay also decided to continue all public works “as this constitutes the engine of the country’s economy… especially road works [that will] continue to produce and receive resources to continue serving to the rest of the economy”. Under this premise, the Build Build Build program of the government needs to take off and so far, it has accomplished a lot like the Skyway Stage 3 even in the time of the pandemic. Nevertheless, it is still important to also share resources particularly in health.

Despite the will to push for construction and maintenance work of infrastructure, lower work rates due to supply problems, lack of mobility and restrictive health and safety measures were noted. This was apparent in some LMICs like Benin. In Senegal, they also cite similar reasons for the slowdown in infrastructure such as reduced working hours, slow supply of building materials and spare parts to construction sites, blocking of movement of expats and service providers from foreign countries, increasing transport prices, delay in repair and maintenance work on construction equipment and lack of control over manufacturing lead times and deliver of supply and equipment imported from Europe and China.

These may also be true with how infrastructure projects go about in the Philippines. Challenges especially on the physical distancing was the common issue as well as wearing of proper personal protective equipment responsive to curb the transmission of coronavirus. Luckily, the Department of Public Works and Highways was quickly responding to this by issuing Department Order No. 39 series of 2020 released in May in time when most of the country gradually relaxed its quarantine measures. The said order prescribed construction safety guidelines for the implementation of infrastructure projects during the public health crisis.

The approved national budget has continued to show that the government relies mostly on infrastructure to keep the economy going having the second largest piece of the pie (15.4 percent or PhP695.7 Billion) behind education (16.7 percent or PhP751.7 Billion); the latter being highest as mandated by the Constitution. Although the world has seen different effects on the infrastructure sector, it seems that the Philippines has laid in place its infrastructure boom at the right time, at least. But the true indicator of the sector’s success lies on which direction the country would be going after the pandemic.

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