POPDEV Undersecretary Dr. Juan Antonio Perez III at the 55th session
of the United Nations’ Commission on Population and Development. POPCOM FILE PHOTO

The COVID-19 pandemic created an unmistakable demarcation line in the country’s progress for attaining the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), despite the current administration’s amplified efforts on sexual and reproductive health rights and services (SRHRS) as well as population and development (POPDEV) figuring prominently its 10-point socioeconomic agenda.

Speaking at the 55th session of the United Nations’ Commission on Population and Development (CPD) late in April, Undersecretary Juan Antonio Perez III, MD, MPH outlined the Philippines’ various programs on POPDEV and SRHRS hinged on the SDGs, as well as its global commitments in reaching the said targets. While remarkable strides were achieved in the said areas, he said the global health crisis took a heavy toll on the country’s investments for those.

“POPDEV work clearly suffered a setback in the last two years in terms of reducing poverty, which currently grips 23% of the Philippine population, and has rolled back the gains of the first four years of implementing the medium-term plan and its related SDG progress,” claimed Dr. Perez, the executive director of the Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM). “Excess mortality due to COVID-19 and the relative weakness of the health system fighting on two fronts reached a peak in 2021, when the Civil Registration System noted an unprecedented 26% rise in mortalities.”

Dr. Perez likewise revealed that the plan to reduce the national poverty rate to 14%, outlined in the Duterte administration’s 10-point socioeconomic agenda, was severely waylaid by the pandemic. From a starting point of 23% in 2015, poverty incidence was already at a low 16% in 2019, but the height of the health crisis in 2021 pushed it back to 23.7%. This hiked the number of poor Filipinos, whose per capita income is already inadequate to meet basic food and nonfood needs.

He explained that “the latest figure translates to 26.14 million Filipinos who live below the poverty threshold, which is estimated at P12,082 average monthly income for a family of five in the first semester of 2021.”

Nonetheless, the POPCOM chief assured that the local economy is gradually recovering with the easing of mobility restrictions and reopening of businesses, fueled by consumer spending: “For the full-year 2021, the gross domestic product growth of 5.6% has exceeded the target of 5.0% to 5.5%. With high hopes, the economy will be on the path of complete recovery by the end of 2022.”

SRHRS sustained: On the positive side, the POPDEV undersecretary relayed that, with the full execution of SRHRS as well as population-related policies during the pandemic, family planning use among Filipino women was sustained: from 7.6 million users in 2019, to 8 million by end of 2020, based on data from the Department of Health’s Field Health Services Information System.

“We saw an expansion of access to SRHRS, particularly in family planning, where almost 2 million users of modern methods were added from 2016 to 2019,” Dr. Perez said. “Maternal mortality rates and infant mortality saw reductions in the same period.”

The POPCOM chief also lauded the Filipinos’ resilience and adaptation to the health and economic crises with the surge in the usage of modern family planning in 2020, as women avoided unplanned pregnancies during the crisis, and health workers responded to the increased demand by conducting house-to-house provision of services.

“From 2020 to 2021, we saw a sudden decrease in births and population growth—including a decline in adolescent birth rates that has accelerated the trend toward achieving replacement fertility by the end of this administration,” he shared.

SRHRS as response: Dr. Perez suggested to other countries the need to include SRHRS as part of their response to the health and economic crises, and not dilute its importance, as public health systems as well as governments seek to reduce the pandemic’s impact.

“We must ensure the sustainability of the public health system, including reproductive health delivery systems, to respond to the higher demand for health services due to the deficits of the last two years,” the POPDEV undersecretary reminded delegates in the virtual gathering.

With regard to adolescents as vulnerable members of society, whose SRHRS aspects were severely compromised during the pandemic, he asserted that quality educational systems, which include comprehensive sexuality education modules integrated at appropriate levels, will be crucial “to win back losses young people have suffered in this area for the past two years.”

The head of POPCOM reminded that families, women and couples have been promised a share in economic development for the last three decades through three global-binding agendas: the International Conference on Population and Development Program of Action, or the ICPD POA, the Millennium Development Goals, and the SDGs.

Dr. Perez expounded that “for countries in a demographic transition like the Philippines, they must not lose sight of what has brought them to their current situation: a cohesive and effective family planning program based on efficient local health systems, improved adolescent health and development by addressing comprehensively high adolescent birth rates, and increased attention to family development that leads to the reduction of unmet needs not only in reproductive health, but also in nutrition, household incomes, education and housing.”               

During the CPD proceedings, UN Population Fund Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem cited the chairmanship of Philippine ambassador Enrique Manalo for his “vision and leadership,” which led to the country’s remarkable hosting of the 55th session