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New normal: Living and working, with Covid-19 still out there

I KNOW the term has become a cliché, but I just can’t think of another one to describe what the Duterte government and most of us now view as the realistic approach to the Covid-19 pandemic.

We live and work, and even start to play, with the virus still out there. It’s the new normal.

While a less-than-strict-lockdown — which we call general community quarantine — is obviously still necessary for several cities in Metropolitan Manila, and especially for limited-area hot spots, we can no longer, after five months of doing it, stop or severely restrict economic activity as a means of stopping the spread of the virus. The lives-or-work dichotomy is false.

We have to live with the coronavirus, and for the government to see to it that most Filipinos do what science says will reduce the risk of their being infected by 95 percent: wear face masks, observe social distancing, and wash hands frequently.

We are lucky that because of a combination of government interventions and of factors our epidemiologists have not been able to pinpoint — a younger demographic profile, a weaker Covid-19 strain, or maybe been some kind of Asian immunity — the virus has taken the lives of “only” 2,795.

I don’t mean to dismiss this tragedy, but only to put it in context. That figure of 2,795 Covid-19 deaths is smaller than those within a similar half-year for the four leading causes of mortality in our country: heart disease, 66,000; cancers, 30,000; pneumonia and other types of lower respiratory diseases, 41,000; and tuberculosis, 8,000.

This is the case for the world as a whole, with the 790,000 Covid-19 deaths so far still smaller (for the same half-year period) than those due, among others, to cardiovascular diseases, 8.9 million; cancers, 5 million; and respiratory diseases, 3 million.

This isn’t the case, however, in other countries. The United States’ 177,000 deaths from Covid-19 make it the third biggest cause of mortality among Americans now.

Not as deadly
We are also fortunate that Covid-19 has turned out to be not as deadly as it initially seemed. Out of the 174,000 Filipinos who were infected, only 2,795, or 1.6 percent, died of it. Out of the 58,000 active cases as of the other day, 98 percent either didn’t have any symptoms or had only mild ones.

The five months of lockdowns did prevent Covid-19 from exploding as it did in other countries like the US and Brazil, with cases there numbering 5.7 million and 3.5 million, respectively. Just to give us an idea what could have happened if there had been no lockdowns, the Spanish flu infected 4 million Filipinos and killed 80,000 in 1918-1919, when there had been no quarantine of cities in the metropolis.

Covid-19 will be with us, going by the experience of the 1918-1920 flu pandemic, at the very least until next year, unless a vaccine becomes available on a mass scale. We just have to live with it, and undertake precautions both on an individual level and on office, store or company levels.

There is no template to completely eradicate Covid-19 that can be used for any country. As I explained in my column Wednesday, there are myriad factors involved in combating the pandemic, many of which were built through decades, such as a society’s health system, its disaster response infrastructure, the political system, even culture.

For instance, much of the success of China and Vietnam in nearly eradicating Covid-19 was due to their authoritarian systems, under which the state has quick access to neighborhoods, and their citizens accept the necessity of a strong state. On the other hand, Americans’ fixation on “freedom of choice” and high-value on daily (or nightly) social gatherings — combined with a president that encouraged this — made it difficult for the state to impose the wearing of masks and social distancing.

The very high level of communal responsibility in the Scandinavian countries as a result of their social-democratic systems made it a no-brainer for their citizens to undertake on their own measures that science had told them would stop the spread of the virus.

I don’t think we really were able, or will be able, to lock down the metropolis as Wuhan did. We just have too many dense communities, even slums, where it is impossible to demand household members that they stay indoors.

We’re not helpless of course, and the government needs to again and again make sure that the use of masks, social distancing, and hand sanitizing becomes universal in public places. A huge problem, as the July 10 report of the University of the Philippines OCTA Research pointed out, is the fact that hospital beds as well as intensive care units for Covid-19 patients in the National Capital Region have passed the critical 70-percent level.

This is where the government must immediately pour its resources to, even build in a short period of time a hospital devoted to severe Covid-19 patients, as Wuhan did.

There wasn’t a vaccine that was invented against the Spanish flu. After a more terrible second wave in the closing months of 1918, though, it started to diminish slowly in the latter half of 1919, to gradually be forgotten by 1920, although its traces, scientists claim, continue even in much of the 21st century.

The Yellows shouldn’t be celebrating though that this plague is upon us during Duterte’s watch and think that it would be easy to blame the illnesses and deaths on him.

Rather, the timing of this Covid-19, and the government’s success — even if hardly spectacular but passing — couldn’t be better for Duterte and his camp. The economy of the US, and most of the world when the 1918-1919 flu pandemic subsided bounced back with a vengeance, leading to the Roaring ’20s, because of pent-up demand.

I bet there will be a similar bounce-back next year, probably mid-year. In the 1984-1985 economic crisis, the economy contracted 7 percent for each year, inflation rose to 50 percent, and the peso’s value precipitously fell, from P11 to the dollar in 1983 to P20 by 1986. In contrast, these key economic factors have been unchanged through this Covid-19 crisis. Economic activity this year had simply stopped in certain sectors. While not everything can be restarted, the economy’s cost structure remains the same, and there will be restructuring towards a more efficient production and distribution systems.

In a word, the economy will be roaring back, guess when? Late next year to early 2022 — just in time for people to credit it to Duterte and vote whoever he anoints.

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