Quarantine is not about enforcement
Community quarantine is not a matter of enforcement. It is a matter of informed self-modification of community behavior. At its heart is a comprehensive, agreed-upon system of action, arrived at by government and the people.
The mass exodus out of Metro Manila that is happening is what Filipinos call “bakwet.” It is a response to a governance uncertainty where people find it necessary to fend for themselves. The food, water, security, and civil order conditions in Metro Manila in the next few weeks could turn ugly, complicating the situation on top of the COVID-19 crisis. The government should, therefore, make more credible, consistent pronouncements, and come up with confidence-building measures. The way to do this is to get recognized representatives of the people to participate in the way the community quarantine guidelines and requirements are being formulated. Letting the politicians, generals, and ungrounded technocrats come up with the guidelines alone is not the way to go.
Which is why President Duterte’s press conference last Thursday will haunt this country for decades to come. By reading from a script, he did better than his dismal performance three days before, but his effort to show some modicum of familiarity with the contents of the script was laughable. It was not responsive to the needs of a people looking for a straightforward, reassuring all-of-government strategy for dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. He was like a school kid trying to impress the audience with his play at presidential authority.
But he was fed a canard and he, the President of the Republic, the leader of 110 million people, had no inkling of the stink he has passed on. The task force that presented him with the script should be ashamed of the half-baked and incoherent “Completed Staff Work” Mr. Duterte ladled out on prime time television. The hour-long spectacle has now induced much frustration and confusion-driven panic, good for the next 30 days and beyond. There is impending pervasive and ugly social friction and untold suffering among the poor and rich alike.
In essence, the lockdown (now restyled as community quarantine) prohibits land, sea, and air travel into and out of Metro Manila. But movement within Metro Manila and outside is left to respective local authorities. Locking down Metro Manila presupposes that it is a single, large epicenter of COVID-19 infection, like Wuhan was. That does not seem to be the case; the positive cases are widely distributed, coming from different municipalities, within and outside Metro Manila. What is the operational logic of a Metro Manila lockdown? A Metro Manila focus robs the government of the resources to apply on a more logical, calibrated level. How many policemen and troops are required to impose the Metro Manila lockdown at its boundaries? How many hundred entry points are there into Metro Manila from the neighboring provinces?
But wait, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año and other officials say in post-Duterte press conference interviews that workers can still travel to and from Metro Manila, if they will show their company IDs at boundary checkpoints. What kind of quarantine is that — filtering not on the basis of presence or absence of COVID-19 symptoms, but on irrelevant attributes? And how long will the checkpoint lines be, every day, going to and from work? Has there been a single time-and-motion study of these and other dubious schemes? How will checkpoint sentries differentiate between a nonqualified person presenting a fake company ID, and a legitimate microenterprise worker without a company ID? Malacañang is now besieged with interminable questions that matter to real people, yet without answers, because the community quarantine scheme designers are now only taking them into consideration.
In previous crises and civic tumult, as in the Marawi siege, the murder of Jee Ick-joo in Camp Crame, the dreadful EJKs and ninja cops incidents, the Customs, Immigration, Muntinlupa, and PNP corruption scandals, there had always been a magic bullet to silence all opposition and calm and mesmerize the natives. And that was: Get Tatay Digong on the air. This time, Tatay Digong’s cocktail of sermons, adlibs, sexist jokes, irrelevant anecdotes, and cursing have had the opposite effect — grating to Filipino ears, infuriating to the intellect, and crushing to the heart.
But there is a dark silver lining. The government’s flailing, comical response to the overwhelming, life-threatening COVID-19 challenge may be the critical pathway to discernment by the people. If it turns out that way, what a way to start the end!
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