Community quarantine: Milder, Wuhan-style lockdown, so be it

LET’s cut through the semantics. The government’s “enhanced community quarantine” (ECQ) is a lockdown for the entire Luzon island group, nearly the kind that was imposed on the former epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic — Wuhan, China — on January 23, and the next day on the entire Hubei province.

That Chinese response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic adheres to the dictionary meaning of “lockdown,” a state of isolation or restricted access. It has a pejorative connotation, though, since it is commonly used to refer to prisoners confined to their cells or a facility completely sealed off because of a security breach.

ECQ, which will last till April 12, though, is a kinder, more accurate term. “Quarantine” refers to a state of isolation in order to prevent a disease from spreading, which is precisely what the government’s ECQ is all about: stop the virus from spreading by limiting, as much as possible, social contacts, by which the virus leaps from one person to another.

The China lockdown was its extreme form: every resident was required to stay home, food was delivered to their homes or just one family member allowed to get supplies from the store, state medical workers fetched the sick form their residences and essential services were undertaken by state employees and even by the military.

COVID-19’s SPREAD. China locked down early. Italy, Spain and France did it late; still no lockdown in Iran. (Note: Bar charts start March 2.) https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus

ECQ is a milder version, it seems, so far. Its essence is encapsulated in the admonition Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles repeated several times in the news conference the other night: “Stay at home.” To get people to do this, President Rodrigo Duterte issued Proclamations 922 and 929 that declared a nationwide public health emergency and for Luzon, the enhanced quarantine.

The proclamation in essence ordered the cessation of activities that require a gathering of people (which would allow the virus to spread from person to person and even from one person to many persons) and includes the following: education at all levels; work except for work-at-home arrangements and for those that deal with the production and distribution of essential commodities and services; public and mass transport; and sea and air transport.

Is ECQ an overaction? I don’t think so. I’m certain the remarks of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the United States National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases will be quite applicable to us: “We’ll be thankful that we’re overreacting. If it looks like you’re overreacting, you’re probably doing the right thing.”

Yes, when Wuhan was put on lockdown on January 23, all of China had 574 confirmed cases. We have, as of yesterday, just 141 cases.

But we cannot risk what happened in China (predominantly in Wuhan) when from just 574 cases on January 23, the number of people infected rose to 28,060 in just two weeks and 76,392 after just another two weeks.

That kind of contagion would be a total catastrophe for us, as we don’t have the medical personnel, materials and facilities to take care of those infected with Covid-19. We don’t have the personnel to forcibly quarantine those infected but asymptomatic, who would exponentially spread the virus to infect — if we use the worst-case model for the US done by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — at least 1 million Filipinos.

Although China deployed many approaches to contain the virus, the Wuhan lockdown — criticized by the Western press as unnecessarily draconian — has been acknowledged as one of the most important factors for its containment of Covid-19. From 1,000 daily cases reported in February, the number has steeply gone down to two digits, with only 27 cases reported on March 15.

By contrast, Italy, which after China is now the most Covid-19-infected country with 21,157 cases, has had more than a thousand daily cases since March 8 (3,497 cases on March 15 alone). The Italian government had its most-infected northern part locked down only that day, extended after two days to the whole of the country.

Spain, now the second most infected country in Europe with 21,157 cumulative cases and 1,522 reported on March 15, ordered a lockdown only on March 14.

Iran, the third most infected country in the world after China and Italy with 12,729 cases so far, hasn’t ordered a lockdown, but only banned the arrival and departure of vehicles in and out of Khuzestan province, its most infected area. Daily cases in Iran have risen past 1,000 since last week.

In short, it’s a no-brainer that we have to have a lockdown. Slow down the contagion’s spread before it gets out of hand. The only valid question is whether it should have been only for the National Capital Region or NCR (and including its adjacent provinces) or, as Duterte ordered, for the entirety of Luzon.

The ECQ Duterte ordered is not without its major problems, which I hope can be corrected soon.

The biggest problem is the build-up of traffic and crowds at the boundaries of NCR because of authorities still checking whether those going into NCR have work there and even taking their temperature to see if they have fever, one of the symptoms of Covid-19. These checkpoints are irrational. If the government has ordered businesses and factories closed for the entire region, with exceptions, it has to let those going to and from Manila do so without having to check them. The traffic and crowd build-up, in fact, has been so bad they have virtually become perfect areas for contagion. And do the temperature scanners really work?

While Duterte has assured the poor that they will not go hungry during this lockdown, it isn’t clear at all how the government will provide for their needs, especially since they have no cash surplus to stock up on supplies.

Transport must be provided for those whose activities are exempted from the stay-at-home policy. The news photos of obviously poor people waiting for rides or just deciding to walk to their work are heart-rending. Covid-19 has not only raised their fear of a hell of being unable to work and their families starving; commuting to work has become hell on earth.


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