Can the travel ban to and from NCR work?

I CERTAINLY hope so, as China’s experience proved that isolating Wuhan City prevented the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) from quickly engulfing the entire nation and from migrating fast to other countries.

But there are about 4 million workers and middle-class people working in Metro Manila (National Capital Region or NCR), who go home each evening to homes outside the metropolis and return the next morning to report to their places of work. This figure may even be bigger because rents in the metropolis have gone up steeply in the past several years. I haven’t met a single rank-and-file employee in Manila in the past few years who didn’t live either in Bulacan or Cavite or a province adjacent to the metropolis.

For the police or whoever checking at rush hours the company IDs of these 4 million going to and from the metropolis — to determine if they work there — could be a nightmare. To implement this would create traffic stretching tens of kilometers from Metro Manila.

Can you imagine how long it would take to stop a provincial bus, for the police to board it and check each and every passenger’s ID to see if he works in Metro Manila? By the time they finish checking the IDs of 4 million, most of them would be late for work or entirely miss work.

And how many — vendors, for instance, informal entrepreneurs, even professionals — don’t have ‘company IDs’? Okay, so they just explain to the police manning the checkpoint. But how long would this take?

No exemptions
On the other hand, in a total no-exemptions lockdown, enterprises having employees living outside the metropolis would have to provide them housing and food so they don’t need to commute to their homes. Would they be willing to shoulder the huge expenses for this?

If they can’t, they’d have no choice but to cease their operations. But that would mean billions of pesos in economic activity stopped. Can the country afford that?

Or maybe the police have deep insights on how to handle this logistical nightmare I am just not aware of. We’ll see today.

Wuhan was locked down after 400 cases were discovered, Italy about 1,000. We still have just 100. We should find out other ways of containing the spread of Covid -19 at this time.

Taiwan and South Korea had other means; one of the most effective was intense and thorough “contact tracing,” which involved tracking down every single place an infected person went to and every single person he met with in the past two weeks. After all, the virus primarily spreads from person to person. If the person who transmitted the virus is identified and quarantined, then the virus’ spread is stopped.

Operations
Such operations require a huge number of people dedicated to doing this, which I suspect the Health Department does not have. They should instead deputize the police for this, properly trained for such a job and perhaps in a uniform identifying them as Health department deputies. China reportedly had 1,500 five-man teams that assiduously tracked down each human contact of a Covid-19 victim, and then swiftly isolated or sent them to hospitals.

Biggest individual stockholders of First Pacific Co. Ltd.
Source: Company Annual Report, 2019.
Philippine hospitals majority-owned by Salim’s First Pacific through MPIC.

A more intense approach China also undertook, which will also require a lot of manpower, was to have its neighborhood anti-crime network to check each and every house the health status of residents. Those with fever were closely monitored, and if found to have Covid-19 symptoms are asked to be quarantined first and if their condition gets worse, to report to a hospital with facilities to treat the disease. These could be easily done if government manages to mobilize the country’s barangay system, which has been there for decades that it has become really a neighborhood government, although its role has been felt more in lower-middle and lower-class neighborhoods.

Biggest hospital conglomerate
I hope Manuel V. Pangilinan convinces his boss, the Indonesian Anthoni Salim, into mobilizing his 14 top-of-the-line hospitals to assist government in its difficult battle of defeating Covid-19 in the shortest period of time.

After all, he owes the Philippines, especially since the legality of his — being a foreigner — controling public utility firms is highly questionable, to say the least. I had estimated in my book Colossal Deception: How Foreigners Control Our Telecoms Sector that Salim’s Hong Kong-based First Pacific had extracted at least $2 billion in profits from public-utility firms PLDT Inc., Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), expressways such as the North Luzon Expressway and Manila-Cavite Expressway, Maynilad Water Services Inc. and over a dozen power-generation companies in the Philippines.

The Indonesian oligarch Salim is the biggest single stockholder, with 44 percent holdings, in the Hong Kong-based First Pacific Co. Ltd., which in turn is the biggest stockholder of Metro Pacific Investments Corp. (MPIC). MPIC owns 60 percent of Metro Pacific Hospital Holdings, which is by far the biggest medical care conglomerate in the country, and includes the most advanced (and most expensive hospitals) such as the Manila Medical Center, Manila Doctors Hospital, and the Asian Hospital and Medical Center.

Salim’s hospital conglomerate has 3,200 beds and 8,373 accredited doctors in 14 full-service hospitals across the Philippines, three primary care clinics, and one cancer center. The group in the past two years generated revenues of P50 billion, would you believe. Salim will certainly go down in Philippine business history as the first magnate to make medical-care a profitable, multi-billion peso industry.

I hope Salim and Pangilinan find in their hearts some sympathy for Filipinos to devote a fraction of their firms’ income from the country to donate equipment and machines the country needs to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic.

Among these: a million N95 masks of which should be given free, as China and Taiwan did; Covid-19 testing kits, of which, according to conservative estimates, we need at least 20,000, which would cost P20,000 per test, if have to use World Health Organization-certified tests; protective suits to protect the medical personnel attending to patients, which cost P50,000 each; and mechanical ventilators, which virtually forces a failing lung to take in oxygen, the price of which is at least P100,000.

What isn’t widely known is that China won its battle against Covid-19, reducing the number of fatalities, because of victims’ easy access to what is called the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, which replaces the functions of the heart and lungs, until the patient gets better. The machine costs P3 million, and there are reportedly only two such machines in the country. The Chinese deployed over a 100 such ECMOs in its Wuhan hospitals.

I’m afraid the battle against Covid-19 requires a huge war chest, and it’s doubtful whether government’s procurement systems would be able to deploy the “weapons” quickly for such an urgent campaign.


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