The long haul
To defuse growing unrest and resentment among the poor and an increasing scofflaw attitude among the middle and upper classes, citizens reporting on each other, and the authorities, however petty, calling in the police, have been encouraged. People are tired and worried; so government defuses things somewhat by extending the lockdown in smaller increments of 15 days. The President and his people took to the airwaves starting on Monday night to offer prospects for a calibrated return to semi-normality by September. The first major shift will be from enhanced community quarantine (which is what we’ve been experiencing) to a general community quarantine. When this is declared, curfews will persist, and everyone below the age of 21 and above the age of 60 will still be required to stay home and not allowed out. But some things will start going back to normal: Full operation will resume for agriculture, fishing, forestry, food manufacturing, packaging raw materials, food retail, supermarkets, restaurants (take-out and delivery only), hospitals, logistics, water, energy, internet and telecoms, and media. Slated for 50-percent to 100-percent opening will be electronics and exports, e-commerce, delivery for all (essential and nonessential) items, repair and maintenance services, housing, and office services. Slated for 50-percent onsite and 50-percent work-from-home are financial services, BPOs, nonleisure wholesale and retail trade, and “other nonleisure activities,” whatever that means. It also means that for malls housing operations allowed to resume, only customers ages 21-59 will be allowed in, and in limited numbers. What will open in September are schools; leisure, amusement, gaming and fitness facilities; tourism; mass gatherings including religious services, conferences, etc.; the limited opening of malls; and construction activities.
What this means is we have been given a description of the light at the end of the tunnel, without actually seeing the light. Government knows what it should do to move forward, but lacks a fundamental tool to do so: testing kits.
The United States has been hoovering up reagents and testing kits, not to mention PPEs, as it’s become the global epicenter of the battle versus COVID-19. This means countries like the Philippines are left unable to order/import testing kits in the necessary volume to expand (targeted) testing, both the kind of tests needed to determine if someone currently infects, and the other kind that tests for antibody presence to show past infection, and thus gauge the true extent of infection in the population.
What this shortage means is that testing won’t be as extensive as officially OK’d. This means the true scope/scale of COVID-19 infection will still be unknown to policymakers and the public. Meanwhile, we are still in the midst of an epidemic: In recent days, media reported that ICU capacity in the NCR, for example, is about to be reached. This is what flattening the curve—the lockdown—is meant to make possible: slowing infection to the extent our medical facilities can handle the rate of infection.
If you ask around, three important things come to mind. First, that in some places (often below the media radar), lockdown/quarantine isn’t really practiced, because to even try to do so would result in a public revolt. So it’s laissez-faire, live and let live, for these communities. COVID-19 could be rampant but anyway no data, so who knows? Second, people are jittery and, as a result, they are allergic to bad news, and so would actually rather have it suppressed lest it raise tempers (e.g., shortages of food) or lead to epidemics of despair (i.e., cases of suicide). In a sense, the leadership and the public would prefer the comfort of turning a blind eye than face frightening realities, something I raised in my column of Feb. 26. Third, and most important of all, the business community has supposedly privately told government the economy can withstand lockdown until June.
What this suggests is the government’s best option is to keep extending the lockdown until June, and then proclaim victory. Because there is really no other strategy to at least lessen the effects of the virus than the lockdown, even though it can, and probably has, run riot in depressed areas with the highest population densities. Then opening up and putting the best face on whatever numbers (limited by limited testing, anyway) can show follows. Meanwhile, government will focus on keeping the social volcano from erupting.
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