CLuzon marches forward to recovery from Covid-19 woes

By Zorayda Tecson 

CITY OF SAN FERNANDO, Pampanga – Amidst the continuing threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, Central Luzon struggled determinedly in its march towards recovery in 2021.

The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) noted the gradual improvement in Central Luzon’s labor market situation since the middle of this year due to the effects of the easing of community quarantine restrictions and the gradual easing of movement of people, goods, and services.

Divina Hope Vallejo, NEDA-Region 3 chief economic development specialist, cited the increase in the region’s employment rate due to the reopening of some businesses as a result of the decline in the number of Covid-19 cases.

As of December 21, the total number of active Covid-19 cases in the region was 1,146. The total number of recoveries was 274,516, or 97.4% of the 281,774 total infections while the number of deaths stood at 6,109.

“Our labor market situation is improving. When the quarantine status was lowered, business operations improved and we saw  our labor market is indeed recovering,” Vallejo noted.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported that the employment rate in Central Luzon was recorded at 93.8% in  July this year, the highest rate since the pandemic began in April 2020.

PSA also reported that employed persons in the region were estimated at 4.8 million or 211,100 higher than the estimate in April 2021, and 249,500 more than that in July 2020.

Among the factors that revived and pushed Central Luzon’s  regional economic resurgence is the sustained implementation of various infrastructure projects in the region under the government’s “Build, Build, Build” program.

“We firmly believe that ‘Build, Build, Build’ projects create jobs, increase income and strengthen the investment climate,” Vallejo said.

The ongoing projects include the New Clark City National Government Administrative Center; the mixed-use industrial real estate development, also in New Clark City; the Philippine National Railway North 1 and 2 projects; the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Line 7; the Central Luzon Link Expressway (CLLEX) Phase 1 and 2.

Aside from infrastructure projects, the regional economy was also boosted by the good performance of the three freeports in the region — Subic, Clark, and the Freeport Area of Bataan.

The Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) has approved new investments worth some PHP16.2 billion this year that is expected to create dome 72,722 new jobs in the freeport zone.

SBMA chair and administrator Wilma Eisma said the health crisis may have initially caused the closure of some companies in Subic, “but we’re making a comeback as a preferred investment destination.”

Despite the prevailing pandemic, Clark Freeport is slowly regaining headway in becoming a choice venue of Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibits (MICE) with the opening of world-class hotels like the Hilton Clark, and Hann Casino Resort.

The Freeport Area of Bataan (FAB), on the other, has remained strong and continues to tread forward to further development despite experiencing downturns because of the health crisis.

FAB administrator Emmanuel Pineda said despite the economic downturn, “the FAB continues to be financially viable and has managed to contribute to the government’s revenue, so that from January to August 2021, it has remitted a total of P164 million to the national coffers,”

Central Luzon experienced a slowdown in the agricultural sector due to weather disturbance in the first quarter of 2021 as well as the high cost of farm inputs and travel restrictions.

Palay production in the region in the first semester of this year was 1.74 million metric tons — a 1.44% decline compared to the 1.76 million metric tons during the same period in 2020.

In the livestock sector, hog production likewise dipped by 76.47% in the first semester of the year with 51,146 metric tons as against 217,006 metric tons in the same period last year mainly due to African swine fever (ASF).

On a positive note, concerned government agencies led by the Department of Agriculture (DA), as well as local government units (LGUs) in the region, have initiated various measures to mitigate the impacts of the agriculture downturn.

This year, a total of 177,309 rice farmers in Central Luzon received total cash assistance amounting to P886.5 million under the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund-Rice Farmers Financial Assistance (RCEF-RFFA) program.

Qualified program beneficiaries are rice farmers tilling two hectares of farms and below and are enrolled in the Registry System for Basic Sectors in Agriculture (RSBSA).

To address the ASF concerns, President Rodrigo Duterte placed the country under a state of calamity for one year that took effect on May 10, 2021. The DA also conducted an intensified implementation of programs, such as the “Bantay ASF sa Barangay” as well as surveillance and monitoring systems.

The DA Regional Field Office 3 also distributed indemnity payments to the ASF-hit hog raisers in the region.

The increasing number of commercial flights at the Clark International Airport was noted with 638 flights reported in the third quarter of this year, or 43% higher than in the same period in 2020.

The modernization of the Clark International Airport is seen to  further pave the way for improved and easier travel to and from the Central Luzon provinces, a come-on for businessmen and tourists.

With the full operation of the new Clark Airport terminal, some 12 million passengers per year are expected to visit the region, particularly with the reopening of some tourist destinations in the area. The Department of Tourism (DOT) in Region 3 in fact has conducted various training and seminars for local guides to equip them with the necessary knowledge and skills for their safety and the tourists.

“As more destinations reopen, we recognize the importance of cultivating the knowledge and skills of our tour guides. Thus, we are preparing them for the new normal to maintain high quality and safe services for our tourists,” DOT Regional Director Carolina Uy said.

NEDA affirms that the prospects for the future of Central Luzon indeed looks good. Vallejo said the continuous implementation of massive infrastructure projects in the region is expected to further stimulate its business sectors.

“The infrastructure projects will give multiplier effect that could help stimulate the economy of Central Luzon,” she added.

Regional Development Council (RDC) chairperson and Bataan Governor Albert Garcia cited the need to continue building the region’s infrastructure base to improve resiliency and accelerate connectivity and linkages, food security, industrial growth, and urban development.

Garcia said the implementation and completion of “Build, Build, Build” projects in Central Luzon need to be fast-tracked not only to improve the region’s social landscape, but also to shove forward its economic lurch. (PNA)