Long-term COVID-19 response
The whole island of Luzon has been on “extreme enhanced community quarantine” since March 16. Bringing so many people, businesses, services, transactions, interactions to a standstill is a gargantuan task, never perfected, always painful to the people unused to the extreme and often confusing restrictions. People are taking it one day at a time, looking forward to the lifting of the quarantine on April 14.
But the quarantine has so far not flattened the curve. Since March 21, daily active cases averaged 82. The average for the previous week was only 24. The 700 positive cases level was surpassed on Thursday, March 26. In a week, this is expected to dramatically spike, if trends in other countries apply to the Philippines.
Over the week, many hospitals have declared they could no longer handle additional COVID-19 patients. Many have suffered losses — doctors and staff dying of COVID-19, and hundreds of others quarantined and taken out of the epidemic control frontline.
If most people are largely cooperative despite the extreme difficulties by the poor and no-work-no-pay workers to survive the quarantine, it is because local governments have taken upon themselves to seek out and provide support and emergency food allocations to these vulnerable segments of their constituents. But this assistance is unlikely to be sustainable beyond a week or so, apart from the difficulty of ensuring the assistance reaches the legitimate beneficiaries.
Will the checkpoints magically vanish on April 15? Or will they remain and become even more stringent? Projections of the peak of community infection in the Philippines are placed optimistically to happen as early as mid-April, and as late as mid-June. It is unlikely the quarantine will be lifted before the community infection begins to slacken, or at least decrease at a faster rate.
Even as the government and people are learning to make the quarantine work, we should now learn to accept the quarantine as part of a new way of life for the next six months at least, not only for the next two weeks. The government now has special powers and P275 billion with which to address the crisis. In view of this, I suggest the following action points:
1) Government must prepare the people for the next phase. Unpleasant surprises will have unpleasant consequences. It must formulate alternative scenarios and identify and communicate a preferred roadmap out of this crisis.
2) Government should have as complete and accurate a picture as possible. Enhanced purposive COVID testing is a tool in this direction. COVID infection and response patterns and trends across the country should reasonably be estimated. Proactive contact-tracing follows from COVID case identification.
3) To have a coherent whole of nation approach, multistakeholder consultation and statement should be practiced. Local production of essential equipment and supplies and development of surge medical and emergency capacities should be started.
4) Local governments should be supported in managing their local community quarantines. LGU innovation should be encouraged. Some need mentoring, others need coaching, many need counseling. Threatening them is not the way to go.
5) Citizens are full of suggestions on how the war against COVID-19 should be fought. They should be given a real avenue for providing inputs to government policy and action. Government must not appear to be a blank wall.
6) The COVID-19 crisis is primarily a health crisis and only secondarily a public order crisis. Strategies and programs, appointments and appropriations, should reflect this.
7) Quarantines are about reasonable community behavior change systems, not fascistic enforcement. A robust grievance system will reduce unthinking enforcement and correct tactical mistakes at checkpoints and barangays.
8) Let’s walk the talk. Let’s show our support and gratitude to our health frontliners and facilities by giving them the logistics and compensation they deserve, not only expressions of support. Let’s not presume we know how they can be helped. Let’s ask them.
9) Individuals, families, and neighborhoods should be supported in practicing self-help and mutual help. Those who can do urban gardening, online learning, work from home, and other activities should be encouraged and supported.
10) Quarantine should not translate into mass media restriction and management, although fake news and rumors should be actively proscribed.
COVID-19 is a crisis that creates an opening for transformative change. It is a crisis we should not squander.
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