THREE weeks into the lockdown of Metro Manila and other major urban areas in the Philippines, the government must now craft appropriate strategies to end this draconian but necessary means of containing the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic.
As I will try to explain here, such post-lockdown strategies are part and parcel of our war to defeat this plague, and its implementation has to start soon. The government must consult with local governments, the medical community, the private sector and others to develop such strategies.
While there could still be sudden spikes of infection and even deaths, and the colossal United States and European failure in dealing with the pandemic could affect us, it is reasonable to conclude that the lockdown has worked in containing Covid-19’s exponential growth.
It is rampaging in the US because Americans, and their political leadership, refuse to impose such lockdown. “That will create civil war,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo even said when President Donald Trump floated the idea of that state’s lockdown.
But the lockdown strategy has its huge costs: it means a cessation of production and other economic activities. The longer we have a lockdown, the more people won’t have livelihoods, more of the poorest will starve, worse will be the damage to the economic system.
Even government’s P200-billion financial parachute for the poor will quickly run out. Simply having the central bank print more money — as tax revenues have and will fall because of the lockdown — to fund similar lifelines risks hyperinflation that would make the peso worthless.
We have to gradually end the lockdown, which means circumspectly allowing economic activity — i.e., factories, offices and distributors — to resume in an orderly manner. If we simply return everything to normal, that is, lift the enhanced community quarantine tomorrow, we risk some straggler virus force from spreading again exponentially, throwing back to the end-February status and maybe even more.
I list below a few elements of such a post-lockdown strategy.
1. The availability — even at sari-sari stores — of tens of millions anti-virus masks of N95 quality at subsidized prices and even free of charge to everyone in Metro Manila and the adjacent provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Batangas, where after all the bulk of Covid-19 cases are. We cannot expect the poor or a day-earner to buy a N95 mask, even just once in three days. We cannot risk for them to use makeshift masks that may give them a false defense from the virus.
It would take more than two weeks for masks to be made easily available to at least 12 million residents of Metro Manila and adjacent provinces.
Masks have been scientifically proven to be crucial in stopping the virus. With the population in this area totaling 25 million, half of them employees commuting to work (and exposed to crowds), we need at least 12 million masks when we lift the lockdown and replenished until the pandemic ends.
With many countries scrambling to order hundreds of millions of masks (France ordered the other day a billion from China), President Rodrigo Duterte should use his emergency powers to order factories that can produce this to ASAP start manufacturing these masks.
2. The availability of temperature scanning devices and disinfecting cubicles, which President Duterte should order as mandatory for any establishment having, say, more than 50 employees or students. Again, these devices should be made available at subsidized prices or even free of charge.
3. The widespread availability of Covid-19 testing devices so those infected could be quickly detected and those suspecting to be so could easily determine if they are. How many do we really have now? Ten thousand? When we lift the lockdown we should have at least ten times that.
4. We are confronted with a rather unique challenge other Asian countries don’t face. We have a huge number of overseas workers in Europe and a huge number of migrants — and even dual citizens in the US. If things get out of control in those areas, there will be an enormous pressure for government to loosen up on its restrictions, and allow the easy return of our “poor kababayans.”
But we would have to have a strict screening protocol — and a quarantine system — for Filipinos returning from abroad. In a village in a remote town in the South a friend lives where he thought was the safest in the country, Covid-19 was brought in by Filipina married to a Briton coming from the Untied Kingdom. A San Lorenzo Village victim in early March drove her balikbayan aunt from the US around town.
5. Government should consult with mayors and governors to come up with a realistic schedule for lifting the shutdown of businesses, allowing those engaged in the production of essential commodities to open first so the state would have an idea and the experience on how to ensure that they won’t be infected when they commute to and from work and in the workplace.
The Trade and Industry department should sit down with private-sector associations to agree to a procedure to ensure that employees are screened (or even disinfected) before they enter their workplace.
This is of course armchair strategizing, and there are dozens of actions that we have to take to ensure the virus doesn’t rebound to an even fiercer spread when the lockdown ends.
Readers who own or run businesses should do their own preparing. Set up the protocol for entrance of the offices? Secure disinfectants and alcohol dispenser placed at entrances and toilets? Secure masks for your employees?
My point is that we just can’t wait for April 12 for the quarantine to end. The government, with our help — and suggestions — should prepare for the necessary things to be in place for such an exit strategy.