That’s a hashtag I’ve been using since yesterday, as we all adapt to — to use another useful hashtag — #LuzonLockdown. In three stages, marked by three appearances of the President to address the nation (twice live, the latest prerecorded), the country underwent a transition every bit as sudden and traumatic as that experienced by our World War II generation. We will all truly refer to life as pre- and post-#COVID19PH.
Few from that generation are left, but there is much that might probably be horrifically familiar to them: rumors of an approaching threat; first outbreak; then, everything shuts down. Along the way: the retreat of the authorities, and every man or woman for themselves. When word came that in PGH, medical interns were told they could go home as the metropolis braced for lockdown and that the interns nearly all decided to stay, it reminded me of stories of the ROTC cadets sent home by the government in mid-December, 1941, because they were too young to fight, but who hitchhiked their way to Bataan to fight anyway.
When all is said and done, aside from its initial judgment calls such as putting relations with China ahead of public health concerns by allowing flights to continue, the government and our national leadership will probably be held to account for the manner in which it announced the initial community quarantine in Metro Manila. There was a gap between the announcement and its implementation, which led to a mass exodus from Metro Manila, which panicked surrounding provinces and left many convinced that it helped spread, rather than contain, the virus.
A doctor active on Twitter who was consulted by the authorities, asked by me if this was an unintended consequence of the decision of the authorities, gave this response: “That was the most contentious issue,” he said, referring to the fear that people would flee Metro Manila. “Exodus was foreseen. Delay was humanitarian to give people from Manila time to return and people from the provinces, especially students studying here with limited resources, time to go home. Social distancing recommendations began immediately.”
But recommendations for social distancing — something we’re actually primed to understand, having seen, for generations, that injunction, “Distancia, Amigo!” emblazoned on the mudguards of jeepneys — are different from actually implementing social distancing. After the rolling out of the Metro Manila lockdown — as it came to be known after the President himself shrugged aside “community quarantine” as a euphemism — produced videos of long lines of people undergoing widely and wildly varying forms of processing by policemen, it seems the authorities decided to just escalate matters instead of refining them. So the lockdown became Luzon-wide, announced by a nearly simultaneous duel between hardliners like everybody’s favorite desiccated coconut, the presidential spokesperson (“Banks closed!” he thundered), and various well-meaning but lifeless cadavers like the Secretary of Trade and Industry (“Banks open,” he gasped).
So we have what we have: No one questions the wisdom of stringent quarantine procedures; what people are questioning, and will continue to question, is the implementation, and the obvious fault lines within an administration presided over by a chief executive who makes those belonging to Gen X and older nostalgic for the mummified regime of Leonid Brezhnev. It’s as if the national government decided to even stop pretending to be able to do something beyond waving bayonets and truncheons at the virus, and delegated everything to the barangay. Mayors have taken up the slack, and the better ones are problem-solving with resolve and common sense. The public has tried to step in to fill the vacuum in leadership, and some national officials show signs of trying to fine-tune the lockdown’s at times conflicting rules.
But for now, there seems to be an uneasiness in the air, heightened by frantic calls by true believers to just obey, obey, obey, when the problem is that obeying is part of the problem. Pasig allowed tricycles to operate so staff could go to work in hospitals, etc. Then the PNP chief barked that all public transport daring to operate would be arrested, period. Then the DILG growled that the ban on public utility vehicles was absolute, specifically pointing to Pasig’s solution as forbidden. Yet the President in his rambling pre-taped address had said mayors and barangay officials had wide latitude to address community needs. The left hand, in the time of lockdown, slaps down what the right hand had allowed to be done.
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