The Long View

Bullhorns, batons versus the virus

From the very start, with a population density of 41,515 people per square kilometer in Manila alone (Pateros: 36,447/sq km; Mandaluyong: 34,925/sq km; Makati: 24,346/sq km; Caloocan: 27,989/sq km, all as of 2015), social distancing was an impossibility. This is a problem not unique to us, however much people might point out that Manila is supposed to have the highest population density on the planet. A former public works minister of Liberia, W. Gyude Moore, proposed in a Quartz op-ed on April 12 that curfews, and not total movement bans, make more sense in low-income (and high population density) countries. This recommendation, he wrote, was based on South Africa’s experience: At first it tried to impose a lockdown, but the police found themselves confronted by an angry population in the slums, where conditions under lockdown would have been unbearable. The government made “multiple adjustments to its restrictions which is the right attitude since the first iteration of such policy is never perfect.” Something we know full well: Consider the (relatively) rapid adjustments our government had to make when the lockdown severely disrupted the distribution of food.

Moore added five more prescriptions: 1) Enlist local community leaders to ensure compliance with movement restrictions (meaning nongovernment community leaders with credibility); 2) Mandatory mask-wearing; 3) Continue to improve and expand testing; 4) Expand definition of essential services to include farmers, motorcycle and tricycle taxi riders, food vendors in local markets, and allow produce to reach open-air markets; 5) Direct payment and cash transfer.


You’ll notice that whether by accident or design, our government has undertaken at least five out of the six: enlisting the help of community leaders; mask-wearing; expanding testing; expanding beneficiaries of assistance; and undertaking various forms of cash transfers on the local and national level. What’s never been explored, however, is curfews as a substitute for, and not just another limit imposed on top of, total movement bans. Instead, the time and energy of local and national officials have been increasingly sucked into the unwinnable battle of trying to enforce existing rules with an increasing amount of force and intimidation, without addressing the fundamental problem: How do you resolve social distancing and lockdowns that can be done in relatively low-density developed countries, but not in societies like ours?

Taking its cue from the President, the military, police, and even local officials have ramped up, or asked for, shows of strength, thus engaging in a cat-and-mouse game of escalation. This is a game the authorities never win, as was proven during the Japanese Occupation to martial law: Citizens of all social backgrounds, confronted with efforts to tighten up, will use all their will and wile to find ways to beat the system. Photographs of people congregating in open markets lead to an outcry (led by


bottled-up middle and upper class citizens) and a flurry of official activity. The Department of the Interior and Local Government reminded LGUs that restricted hours for access to markets is not allowed (because it only increases crowding), even as the Special Action Force is dispatched to selected markets to intimidate people into observing social distancing, somehow.

The easiest way to defuse growing resentment is to find a scapegoat. The Pacific Plaza Towers incident seems to have degenerated into a Filipinos vs. foreigners (resented by some residents for engaging in boisterous pool parties, some claim), residents vs. their coresident mayor (who, other residents claim, called in the cops) mess. The end result, cops barging in and bellowing at people, led the middle class and the poor to cheer the law being applied to the rich.

Sen. Bong Go seems to have suggested that the go-ahead has been given to extend the Luzon lockdown until May 15, with a shift in language keen observers noticed. Instead of the diffident “the President said” or “I think the President is inclined” to telegraph a presidential policy direction, he was quoted by PTV4 as saying “I’m in favor” of a lockdown extension. This sends the message to all that if (and when) his opinion is fulfilled, it’s his opinion that really matters. This is in contrast to what the Palace said have been ongoing consultations with former health secretaries and other experts, who, for the sake of argument, can be said to be in the Pernia (formerly of the Cabinet) camp: a gradual lifting of the lockdown to keep the economy alive, while ramping up testing. By all accounts, there continues to be a vigorous debate in government over testing methods and to what extent testing should take place.

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TAGS: coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, Luzon quarantine, Manuel L. Quezon III, The Long View
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