Wealth spreads as Philippines economy is on a roll

Updated 04 July 2013

Wealth spreads as Philippines economy is on a roll

Just three years ago a new car and an overseas holiday were unthinkable luxuries for J. Ante and her family of six. The insurance company manager’s commissions have soared since then as the Philippines, blighted for a generation by venal and incompetent leaders, has unexpectedly boomed, putting middle class comforts within tantalizing reach of many.
The $ 250 billion economy surged 7.8 percent in the first quarter of this year, outpacing China, and a middle class stunted by widespread poverty, political strife and corruption is beginning to share in a prosperity captured for decades by a clannish business and political elite.
The growing affluence and a burgeoning population have lured many global brands. Students and office workers flock to gleaming outlets opened by Zara, Gap, Forever 21, Starbucks and Japan’s Uniqlo. New apartment blocks are springing up on almost every corner of metropolitan Manila and other cities, often clustered around malls and office buildings housing outsourcing businesses such as call centers, which are forecast to earn around $25 billion by 2016.
Luxury car maker Rolls Royce said it was flooded with inquiries since it opened its first dealership in Manila two weeks ago. The first car selling for $ 605,000 went to a popular TV show host, according to newspaper reports.
“Last year and this year have been a big leap in terms of my total income,” Ante said. “Times have become better for our family.”
She said three years ago it was difficult to come up with the school fees for her four children. Travel abroad or a new car were impossible, but “they seem more realistic now since my income is growing at a faster rate,” she said. The family holidayed in Hong Kong this year and a vacation in the US and Canada is planned. They hope to afford a family-friendly Toyota Innova this year.
Many credit the new vitality to the policies of President Benigno Aquino III, elected in 2010 on promises of eradicating graft and fighting poverty. He introduced new taxes, reformed the judiciary, and set the country on a path that shows sign of enduring — it has now enjoyed three straight quarters of economic growth above 7 percent. Standard and Poor’s and Fitch Ratings earlier this year upgraded the Philippines’ credit rating to investment grade for the first time.
“Disposable income has increased and we see a rising middle class,” said Jose E.B. Antonio, chairman of Century Properties Group that brought in Donald Trump’s sons and Paris Hilton to launch luxury condos in Manila.
Sheila Abay, a real estate agent for the past 10 years, said competition in her industry has become stiffer but she still sells more condominiums these days compared to five or 10 years ago.
The bulk of her clients are Filipinos working abroad, who buy property for retirement or investment. Over the last few years, however, she said she has seen a growing number of younger clients mostly aged 25 to 35. Many of them are mid-level managers at outsourcing companies who receive good pay for doing backroom operations for overseas companies.
“Their buying power is bigger,” she said.
It adds up to dramatic shift for a country that has perennially lagged most of its Southeast Asian neighbors despite perceived advantages of a relatively free media, democratic elections and widespread use of English — the language of global business.
The Philippines is only sixth among 10 Southeast Asian countries in terms of GDP per head. Compared with Indonesia, which attracted nearly $ 20 billion in foreign investment last year, the Philippines managed only $ 2.8 billion, not far from $ 2.2 billion for Myanmar, a pariah state until recently. Thailand wooed more than 22 million visitors last year, the Philippines received 4.3 million.
Doubts still linger whether the country can stay on its new course.
President Aquino, in the mold of his late parents — democracy icon and former President Corazon Aquino and anti-dictatorship champion Benigno Aquino Jr. — won the presidency on a reformist platform following two corruption-tainted predecessors. His term ends in 2016.
But in a country where powerful families dominate politics and “name recall” spells votes even for corrupt or incompetent leaders, another wrong turn can reverse recent gains.
There is a still a long way to go before the 28 percent of the population who live below the poverty line feel they too are benefiting from the boom that has dotted Manila with cranes and propelled the local stock market to new heights.

Elizabeth Yap, a 51-year-old single woman with close-cropped hair, scrapes a living by pedaling her tricycle around Manila to ferry passengers. She makes 400 to 500 pesos ($ 9 to $ 11) on good days, when she does not run afoul of law enforcers on their on-and-off campaign to clear the capital’s traffic-choked streets.
“How can we feel the progress in the Philippines when we are poor,” Yap said. “We can see the nice buildings, but for us poor, we can see that we are still poor.”
Antonio, the property developer, believes it’s only a matter of time before prosperity trickles down. He called for more focus on building infrastructure — roads, airports, hotels, restaurants — to support the tourism industry, which he said is a key to providing jobs for drivers, farmers, cooks and other lower income groups.
Despite the strong economic growth, joblessness soared to 7.5 percent in April, up from 6.9 percent a year earlier. Another 19.2 percent were “underemployed,” or part-time workers.
Aquino blamed the increase in joblessness to delays in the planting season due to poor weather, leaving farm workers temporarily out of work during the survey period.
The government has intervened through a program that gives cash directly to the poorest families on condition children stay in school and see a doctor. The program will continue in the remaining three years of Aquino’s administration, along with building mass housing and creating durable jobs in manufacturing, tourism and agriculture, Aquino said.
“We cannot have a society where a few flourish, and the rest must make do with crumbs,” he told a recent development conference. “We must have inclusive growth.”


Man vs. machine in bid to beat virus

Updated 20 February 2020

Man vs. machine in bid to beat virus

  • Human and artificial intelligence are racing ahead to detect and control outbreaks of infectious disease

BOSTON: Did an artificial-intelligence system beat human doctors in warning the world of a severe coronavirus outbreak in China?

In a narrow sense, yes. But what the humans lacked in sheer speed, they more than made up in finesse.

Early warnings of disease outbreaks can help people and governments to save lives. In the final days of 2019, an AI system in Boston sent out the first global alert about a new viral outbreak in China. But it took human intelligence to recognize the significance of the outbreak and then awaken response from the public health community.

What’s more, the mere mortals produced a similar alert only a half-hour behind the AI systems.

For now, AI-powered disease-alert systems can still resemble car alarms — easily triggered and sometimes ignored. A network of medical experts and sleuths must still do the hard work of sifting through rumors to piece together the fuller picture. It is difficult to say what future AI systems, powered by ever larger datasets on outbreaks, may be able to accomplish.

The first public alert outside China about the novel coronavirus came on Dec. 30 from the automated HealthMap system at Boston Children’s Hospital. At 11:12 p.m. local time, HealthMap sent an alert about unidentified pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The system, which scans online news and social media reports, ranked the alert’s seriousness as only 3 out of 5. It took days for HealthMap researchers to recognize its importance.

Four hours before the HealthMap notice, New York epidemiologist Marjorie Pollack had already started working on her own public alert, spurred by a growing sense of dread after reading a personal email she received that evening.

“This is being passed around the internet here,” wrote her contact, who linked to a post on the Chinese social media forum Pincong. The post discussed a Wuhan health agency notice and read in part: “Unexplained pneumonia???”

Pollack, deputy editor of the volunteer-led Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, known as ProMed, quickly mobilized a team to look into it. ProMed’s more detailed report went out about 30 minutes after the terse HealthMap alert.

Early warning systems that scansocial media, online news articles and government reports for signs of infectious disease outbreaks help inform global agencies such as the World Health Organization — giving international experts a head start when local bureaucratic hurdles and language barriers might otherwise get in the way.

Some systems, including ProMed, rely on human expertise. Others are partly or completely automated.

“These tools can help hold feet to the fire for government agencies,” said John Brownstein, who runs the HealthMap system as chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It forces people to be more open.”

The last 48 hours of 2019 were a critical time for understanding the new virus and its significance. Earlier on Dec. 30, Wuhan Central Hospital doctor Li Wenliang warned his former classmates about the virus in a social media group — a move that led local authorities to summon him for questioning several hours later.

Li, who died Feb. 7 after contracting the virus, told The New York Times that it would have been better if officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier. “There should be more openness and transparency,” he said.

ProMed reports are often incorporated into other outbreak warning systems. including those run by the World Health Organization, the Canadian government and the Toronto startup BlueDot. WHO also pools data from HealthMap and other sources.

Computer systems that scan online reports for information about disease outbreaks rely on natural language processing, the same branch of artificial intelligence that helps answer questions posed to a search engine or digital voice assistant.

But the algorithms can only be as effective as the data they are scouring, said Nita Madhav, CEO of San Francisco-based disease monitoring firm Metabiota, which first
notified its clients about the outbreak in early January.

Madhav said that inconsistency in how different agencies report medical data can stymie algorithms. The text-scanning programs extract keywords from online text, but may fumble when organizations variously report new virus cases, cumulative virus cases, or new cases in a given time interval. The potential for confusion means there is almost always still a person involved in reviewing the data.

“There’s still a bit of human in the loop,” Madhav said.

Andrew Beam, a Harvard University epidemiologist, said that scanning online reports for key words can help reveal trends, but the accuracy depends on the quality of the data. He also notes that these techniques are not so novel.

“There is an art to intelligently scraping web sites,” Beam said. “But it’s also Google’s core technology since the 1990s.”

Google itself started its own Flu Trends service to detect outbreaks in 2008 by looking for patterns in search queries about flu symptoms. Experts criticized it for overestimating flu prevalence. Google shut down the website in 2015 and handed its technology to nonprofit organizations such as HealthMap to use Google data to build their own models.

Google is now working with Brownstein’s team on a similar web-based approach for tracking the geographical spread of the tick-borne Lyme disease.

Scientists are also using big data to model possible routes of early disease transmission.