Govt must now craft and start post-lockdown strategies

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.

Parachute
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.

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How are we doing, relative to the rest of the world, that is?

TO be frank, for a second or so, the news reported yesterday afternoon that we had 272 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the total to 1,075, sent a shiver down my spine.

That’s the highest increase in a day so far, although, as a health department official explained, the rise in the past several days may have been due to the increase in tests being undertaken and results coming in only recently. But no epidemiologist can really be certain whether we’ve reached the peak or are just starting on the curve. The statement of a United States health official has become classic: “It is the virus that makes the timeline.”

What gives some comfort though is how we stand compared to other countries.

Confirmed Cases and Deaths by Country or Territory
Confirmed Cases and Deaths by Country or Territory.
Source: worldometers.info/coronavirus/ (Philippines and World updated for March 29, 2020)
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Strong states – yes, authoritarian states – save lives

IF there’s anything the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic has demonstrated, incontrovertibly, I think, it is that at the end of the day, people and even our entire human species have to rely on strong — yes, even authoritarian states — for their survival.

Argue as much as you can over some details — for example, that Italy has a huge over-70 population, which made its citizens more vulnerable to the disease — the data stares us in the face:

It is nations with strong, authoritarian states — mainly the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation — that have beaten back this pandemic, which some religious fanatics even see as ushering the biblical end of days. Nearly overwhelmed in February with 77,016 cases, China now has just 3,947. Russia has only 626 case.

I would even include in that list Asian nations that have had a long history of authoritarianism — Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and, yes, even Japan — which appear to have the pandemic under control within their territories, with cases only by the hundreds, in contrast to the democracies with their tens of thousands.

We may not have an authoritarian state, contrary to what the Reds and Yellows are claiming, but we do have a strong leader.

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Where is the Church?

NEXT to the state (including its essential police and military apparatus) and excluding the anarchic, each-to-his-own corporate sector, the Roman Catholic Church has been the most powerful institution in the Philippines, even arguably in many Christian nations.

The world now faces one of its most serious crises since World War 2, with at least half a million souls likely to be infected by the coronavirus diseases 2019 (Covid-19) and 17,000 so far dying from its horrible symptoms. Millions of Filipinos will be going hungry because of the necessary house-per-house quarantine the government has imposed till mid-April.

Yet this second most powerful institution in the country, the Catholic Church is nowhere to be found. A recent photo, after the lockdown was imposed, of the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene or Quiapo Church, the epicenter of the Black Nazarene procession attended by at least a million devotees that is the yearly demonstration of the Church’s colossal hold on Filipino consciousness, speaks a thousand words.

Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo: Closed for business? PHOTO BY J. GERARD SEGUIA
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Convert selected private hospitals into dedicated Covid-19 centers

SO far, we are not doing badly at all in our struggle to contain the deadly coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic that has plunged the world into a health crisis, which is likely to push the global economy into a recession never seen before.

Based on information midday Saturday, our country of 105 million has had 307 cases and 19 deaths. Just to put these figures in context, confirmed number of cases in South Korea is 8,897; Malaysia, 1,183; Japan, 1,054; Indonesia, 450; and Thailand, 411. A figure that could also put the Covid-19 situation in context is that in the 2012 dengue outbreak, there were 271,480 dengue cases, 1,107 of those infected dying of it.

We are certainly not over the hump, but I’m convinced that with the “enhanced community quarantine” — the stay-at-home order in the entirety of Luzon and the ban on travel to and from metropolitan Manila — we’re starting to contain this terrible pandemic.

What is needed now is intensified contact tracing to quarantine those who had even remotely been in contact with a confirmed case. We should have locked down the entire country starting March. An old friend and comrade, Aileen Baviera, was fatally infected with Covid-19 after attending a conference in Paris last March 5.

The biggest risk we face is a sudden and then sustained increase over the next two weeks of cases as happened in Italy, Spain and now in the United States. The deluge of cases in those countries engulfed their medical facilities. This, among other things, resulted in the steep fall of quarantine protocols in their hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units (ICUs), in turn creating more carriers, sadly even infecting the physicians and nurses themselves.

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Imagine it as global, invisible superstorm; but we are surviving it

THE best way to understand what’s happening, and to act appropriately, is that we are in the midst, or just approaching the zenith, of a deadly, invisible superstorm that is engulfing the globe.

It has roared through China, and has advanced into Europe. It is not clear whether Asia, especially Southeast Asia, including us, is the next target, or whether the superstorm has exhausted itself, with some thinking — or hoping — that it would dissipate like influenza toward summer.

We as families have absolutely no choice but to stay home and avoid any other social contact. If we haven’t yet been infected with the virus, then we don’t push our luck and go out to be infected. If we are infected, then it’s practically a crime if we still go out and spread the virus. If we don’t know whether we’re infected or not, then reason tells us not to put our fate and that of others to chance.

It’s really as simple as that. We wait for the storm to pass, for the virus to die a natural death.

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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.

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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?

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PH, Southeast Asia spared from Covid-19?

THE Yellows must be gnashing their teeth that, so far, the incidence of the coronavirus disease 2019 (officially called Covid-19 by the World Health Organization) hasn’t been of such a horrible scale in our country as that in South Korea (7,513 cases; 54 deaths) or in countries on the other side of the globe from China — Italy (9,172 cases; 97 deaths) and Iran (7,161 cases; 2,327 deaths).

By contrast, the Philippines, which is geographically closer to China than Italy and Iran, and in the past two years has had an influx of Chinese tourists and online-gaming employee, has had, by the latest report, only 35 cases and one death. While some media will likely report today headlines like “Covid-19 cases jump” or something like that, 35 cases, compared to the thousands in several countries, is still a relatively low figure.

Some cynics claim that this might be due to the fact that those afflicted with Covid-19 had simply not been reporting it to doctors, much less going to a hospital for treatment. This is improbable though.

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Media owners mold their journalists’ minds

THE Philippine Star last March 5 ran a front-page story titled, “SWS: 62% of Pinoys believe AFP can’t defend WPS.”

The Social Weather Stations (SWS) angrily wrote the newspaper’s editors, pointing out that this was the opposite of what its report said, that its survey found that “62 percent of adult Filipinos have much confidence in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in defending the territories of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).”

The Star didn’t even apologize for its mistake, and simply ran a shorter piece the next day – buried in the inside pages – that accurately reported the SWS survey, without mentioning that the same reporter’s piece the previous day was totally false.

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