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After 108 days: Time to end lockdown

IT is definitely time to end the lockdowns that started March15, modified in various ways, aimed at containing Covid-19. It will be the 108th day of the quarantine on June 30, and we’re setting some record on the longest such lockdowns.

The Wuhan lockdown, the first such measure to contain the pandemic, lasted only 79 days. European countries with much worse outbreaks — with total deaths more than 35,000 — have either totally lifted their quarantine or eased restrictions drastically.

In our case, deaths have totaled “only” 1,177. The richest and most developed nations on earth like the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy have had 122,610; 43,000; and 35,000, respectively. Our ranking in terms of number of cases has been the same since March, in the 39th-40th slot (No. 1 being the worst, the USA), going by Worldometers’ data.

While perhaps morbid, it is the statistics on number of deaths — and the nature of Covid-19 — which I think are important to determine whether we have contained the pandemic, enough to lift the quarantine that has frozen much of economic activity and made Filipino’s lives miserable.

The course of Covid-19 has shown its two major features. First is that it is highly contagious, unlike its coronavirus cousins like the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and even the common cold. Second, it is not as deadly as SARS (10 percent fatality rate) and MERS (34 percent), with a fatality rate for the Philippines of 3.9 percent, lower than that for the world of 5.2 percent.

While the caveat in those Covid-19 statistics is that it doesn’t take into account the extent of testing in a particular country, which may overestimate or underestimate the rate, it points to a reality that is both grim and not-so-grim.

Grim in that Covid-19 until a vaccine is found, is unlikely to be totally eradicated.

Not-so-grim in that, just as long as its rate of spread doesn’t overwhelm our hospitals, the number of deaths would still be manageable. The number of deaths won’t likely soar as to have TV images of mass graves, as in the case of Brazil, which after all practically did nothing to contain the pandemic.

In contrast we have, for 108 days, with 558,163 Filipinos so far tested, with a low 7 percent found free of the virus. With the 3.9 percent fatality rate mentioned, that would be a manageable 1,502 deaths.

Indeed, even with a vaccine against it, there are 60,000 Filipinos dying of pneumonia annually, compared to a likely 12,000 from Covid-19 this year.

While Covid-19 and pneumonia are totally different diseases, with different rates of transmission, their number of deaths somehow makes our choices clearer.

Would it be rational to impose a lockdown that severely damages the entire economy until everyone is vaccinated so we won’t have 60,000 Filipinos dying of pneumonia every year? I’m sure some economists can estimate that the poverty generated by, and the number Filipinos dying as a result of, a contraction (i.e., not just a slower GDP growth) of the economy, will be much more than 12,000.

Government had to impose the lockdown in March since, at the time, there was little data that could tell us how many Covid-19 cases and deaths could happen.

The statistics on Covid-19 deaths now themselves point to a containment of the pandemic.

Chart 1 Source: Department of Health

As shown in Chart 1, the peak of the pandemic’s deadliness was on April 1 when the 7-day moving average was 33 (Statisticians use the average for the past 7 days to give a better picture of the situation, rather than relying on figures just for one day.) This has significantly gone down to just the latest 1.14 deaths for the latest 7-day moving average on June 22. Per million Filipinos, the 7-day moving average of deaths is just 0.11, lower than the world average of 0.64, the US’ 1.85, Indonesia’s 0.17.

Chart 2

Although the daily announcements sound alarming, there is an unmistakable downward trend in cases, as shown in Chart 2. The peak of the pandemic’s spread here was on June 10, when the 7-day moving average was 571 cases per day. This has gone down to the June 20 average of 309 cases.

There are definitely hotspots though, where government should maintain quarantine, principally in Cebu City and the entire Cebu province as well as Quezon City.

But after 108 days of implementation, I’m sure the government can be more precise, more surgical, in imposing lockdowns, that is, aimed at particular areas where Covid-19 seems to be still rapidly spreading.

For instance in Cavite, the Covid-19 cases have been mainly in the large cities of Bacoor, Dasmariñas, Imus and General Trias. Furthermore, the cases in these cities are not distributed in their entire areas, but mostly in certain districts. In the municipality where I live, there have been no cases of Covid-19 in the past two months. There is no reason for our municipality to have some kind of lockdown.

Furthermore, the past 100 days or so have seen Filipinos practicing the things that epidemiologists have been repeating again and again, are the simple but effective ways of escaping and spreading the disease: the use of face masks, frequent handwashing, and social or physical distancing.

Anecdotal evidence though indicates that such practices are still not done by Filipinos in certain areas. Where I live and in Makati, you would see practically everyone in the streets and in supermarkets wearing face masks. Not so, I was told, in Parañaque and even Manila. Perhaps a simple municipal ordinance imposing fines for failure to wear masks in public places will go a long way in containing Covid-19 here.

Chart 3

Our hospital facilities have also been expanded so that these won’t be overwhelmed by a spike in cases we will have to endure when the lockdowns are lifted. Less than half of the different available facilities for Covid-19 patients are occupied, as shown in Chart 3.

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