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The Long View

A growing list of dishonor

We are living the famous story of the blind men and the elephant: We are all groping around, describing what we feel, but unable to piece together what we are truthfully saying, and because of that, we are unable to identify what is really in front of us. So what we encounter, on social media where we are mostly interacting these days, are usually sincere, honest, but at times brutal, arguments. Just yesterday, I read one thread involving doctors advocating marshaling all resources to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline medical personnel, arguing with other doctors advocating mass testing for COVID-19 because we lack data on the prevalence of the virus, so we cannot tell what the full scale of the problem is or figure out how success can be measured. In the case of these arguments alone, both sides are correct, but what is missing is the factor of leadership: someone, or some group, to analyze, prioritize, organize, and direct our shared efforts toward a defined goal.

A bureaucracy left with nothing to do will try to use up time, energy, and resources by creating paperwork. So it was that when the government put the military and police front and center in its Luzon lockdown plan, the transport of even basic goods and personnel ground to a halt, and civilian agencies responded by creating all sort of new passes to try to impress unyielding cops and soldiers. Mayors and barangay officials have devoted significant man-hours to issuing, validating, and reissuing quarantine and car passes, which is unnecessary in self-organized middle and upper class communities and pointless tyranny in marginalized areas where social distancing and an effective quarantine is literally a physical impossibility. Combined with the lockdown closing down most avenues for working, you have a recipe for a social explosion.

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The private sector sensed this and appealed to government to first relax the rules (and the uneven enforcement) to allow goods and workers to circulate; then it appealed to government to get its act together and undertake fiscal steps to support the economy. Government tried to fine-tune things and pass legislation, but things are still falling through the cracks. Excessive zeal by local officials has senior citizens—in an era when the extended Filipino family is largely a thing of the past for many—actively discriminated against in groceries and drugstores, while essentially under house arrest in a growing number of barangays. Add the imposition of curfews of all kinds, and you have places like La Huerta Market in Parañaque remaining clogged, because people can only go there from 6 to 10 am.

Local governments with varying levels of competence are trying to feed their constituents, but not everything required can be given (medicines, for example). And, with no income, people will only get more vulnerable and try to evade the lockdown that nearly everyone across all classes easily accepted at the start.

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I get the sinking feeling that, confronted with realities on the ground—the existence of a Philippines of middle- and upper-class enclaves and the larger one of high-density squalor—the government’s plan is for a lockdown lasting a month, which is about the maximum the economy can withstand under house arrest, in the hope it burns its way through the slums while sparing the people who manage, run, and own the country. But this brings us to the ongoing shortage of PPE: Frontline physicians are dying, the shortage is only going to get worse (witness America’s ongoing crisis in equipment), while the greater availability of testing kits can only reveal that the virus is much more widespread than current, limited, official numbers reveal.

On Dec. 29, 1941, the late great Teodoro M. Locsin, then a young man, wrote in his War Diary: “In high good humor the people are compiling a list of dishonor. With infinite malice they treasure each new story of how their lords and masters have disgraced themselves.” He could not know then that his words would apply to his son and the regime he serves so enthusiastically today. But the people, it seems at least, have remained consistent. Daily, online, we see the public compiling and sharing lists of dishonor, and treasuring, with infinite malice, the latest examples of our lords and masters disgracing themselves by using up test kits, and lacking ideas on what to do beyond creating more excuses to demand paperwork from a public already limited in what it can do. The public can only watch, wait, and remember.

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