Cebu’s economic year of pain pushed pivot to digital

Johanna O. Bajenting
·5 min read

THE impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy caught the business community by surprise. It forced every industry to unlearn its practices and relearn those that would fit under the new normal.

In a sense, the year 2020 brought many uncertainties, and a fast reflex to pivot to reach all markets that have retreated to the comforts of the home instead of going out and spurring the economy.

With a disrupted supply chain and the birth of a more cash-conscious market, 2020 leveled the playing fields and put the majority of enterprises in survival mode—except for a chosen few in essential industries that became gainers in the middle of the pandemic.

E-commerce boomed, amplifying industries like logistics. Travel for work and leisure, on the other hand, evaporated in 2020. The Philippine economy sustained its slump in the third quarter to 11.5 percent year-on-year since the Covid-19 battered the economy in March this year. On a quarter-on-quarter basis, the economy grew eight percent.

“The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted lifelines, claimed lives and rendered the world to a standstill in ways no one ever imagined. Our world responded with community quarantine, checkpoints, lockdowns, curfews, passes, personal protective equipment, and new health and safety protocols,” said Cebu Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Felix Taguiam.

He said they started 2020 with a “recharged zeal” for advocacies in growing Cebu’s economy by easing and lowering the cost of doing business in the province.

But when the pandemic hit the country in the first quarter of this year, the Cebu business community faced a tougher challenge. It shifted gears and focused on looking after each other’s businesses to survive and adapt to the new working environment.

“The pandemic leveled the playing field in business and industry as we all ground to a halt—some earlier than others. In due time, essential businesses and industries were allowed to operate based on importance in sustaining goods and services for survival,” said Taguiam.

Winners and losers

He said health care, medical supply and services are considered “winner industries” during this pandemic alongside logistics and transport networks, food production/processing and distribution, retail networks, markets, financial services and security, public works and construction.

Other industries though experienced varying levels of difficulty in business, especially those in aviation, maritime, tourism and hospitality, automotive, private construction and real estate, and manufacturing of non-essentials.

To survive and adapt to the new normal, Cebu’s business owners and leaders had to rethink and redefine business models.

Taguiam said many invested in new tools and digital technology amid the new consumption patterns. Businesses also made the health and safety of employees their top priority.

Others also localized their supply chains, boosted their online presence and adopted workforce mobilization practices like rotation and work-from-home schemes.

The pandemic also gave birth to stronger collaboration between business groups and the public sector.

Taguiam said even as face masks and face shields became necessary, and social distancing became the norm to fight the pandemic, the resilience as a community has been reinforced by the collaboration of key industry leaders in solving critical issues and doing it together through Joint Business Group Manifestos, Project Balik Buhay and Cebu Citizens’ Initiative, to name a few.

“The strength in the synergy and combined resources within the business community, the church, civil society and in coordination with government including the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases has helped us overcome major challenges including bringing positive cases of Covid-19 levels down to single digits,” he said.

Perfect storm

Mandaue Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Steven Yu described 2020 as the “perfect storm” for the business community.

“It was a year of the perfect storm for most businesses except for some of those in technology and health care industries. The enemy is invisible, but it has led to the worst recession ever experienced by anyone born post-World War,” he said.

Yu said the pandemic put a lot of things on a standstill which gave business owners time to ponder the most important things in life.

“It made us realize that God and family are the most important aspect of a person’s life, in that order,” he said.

He also said the year 2020 is not about making money.

“Rather, it’s about surviving and making it to the second half of 2021 to 2022 which is our recovery stage, a Nike-swoosh type recovery curve. There is still hope that recovery will be faster with the vaccine which has been administered to 1.1 million people and more,” he said.

As for the measures and innovations that were undertaken to survive the pandemic, Yu said the easier adjustments were how to live simply and how to do more with less like multi-tasking.

“Work from home became possible and rampant. We learned how to be comfortable with virtual meetings and webinars. The digital transformation was accelerated, and many businesses created an online presence and are reaching their target market via online platforms,” he said.

Health and nature conservation also went in the forefront of all, with the family coming first in the face of the invisible enemy.

“We learn to value health and how to protect health. We have learned to put more emphasis on protecting our planet against degradation. We also learned that only God is in control and how when all else fails, it’s only the family circle that matters,” Yu said.

For Rey Calooy, chairman of the Filipino-Cebuano Business Club, the micro, small and medium enterprises were caught by surprise by the pandemic.

Calooy said the year forced many to adjust strategies, planning and forecasting.

“Some closed up shop, hoping to reopen as they waited for the sun to shine while others pivoted and changed business models toward sunrise industries,” he said.