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HORIZONS

Post-lockdown: Delicate dance after the hammer

Among Ernest Hemingway’s most intriguing characters were the Spanish matadors, who epitomized “grace under pressure.” An admirer of courage, Hemingway saw in bullfighters our contemporary versions of (voluntary) gladiators.

The matadors’ vocation is often described as a “tango with death,” a precarious dance on the precipice with the unreserved guts of a mythical hero. In many ways, what awaits the world after the recent lockdown is not liberation, but a long and arduous struggle, an uncertain dance with an invisible enemy — a planetary plague.

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As we move toward lifting, or downgrading, the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Metro Manila and other major cities later this month, the fundamental question facing the country is: What’s next?

On one hand, there are the naïve optimists who see the lifting of the draconian restrictions as a return to “normal.” This is nothing but premature triumphalism.

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The threat of a “second wave,” whether after summer, through resumption of international travel, or reinfection of patients and contagion by undetected victims, lurks just over the horizon. We are yet to have any semblance of mass testing to even know the true extent of the crisis.

On the other hand, there are the fatalists who have rightly questioned complacency at the expense of desperately needed hope. Last month, a visibly disconcerted President Duterte sincerely warned of the dire prospects ahead for the country: “There’s no end in sight.”

Upon careful analysis, it’s clear that both sides are wrong. The good news is that there is a third way, a more nuanced, sustainable approach to managing the crisis until the advent of mass-produced vaccines.

This brings us to the American data scientist Tomas Pueyo, who has popularized “The Hammer and The Dance” model. Our public policy against the China-originated virus should have two key elements.

First, there is “The Hammer,” namely the rapid and decisive imposition of restrictions on nonessential social gatherings, movements, and economic activities for several weeks. The purpose is to arrest the transmission rate of the virus, especially among asymptomatic victims. This is extremely important to prevent intracommunity transmission or a full-scale epidemic outbreak, since “a single day [of successful restrictions] could reduce the total cases by 40 percent and the death toll by even more.” The aim is to reduce transmission rates from each victim infecting 2-3 others to less than 1. Authoritarian China and democratic South Korea have managed to do this in a matter of weeks.

The problem, however, is that all-out lockdowns can’t be extended beyond two months without risking serious economic contraction, along with large-scale mental health crisis as well as sociopolitical upheaval amid rising unemployment, hunger, and economic insecurity.

As economist Nouriel Roubini has warned, the world is already facing the prospect of a global Depression amid the weeks-long lockdown among major economies.

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And this is where “The Dance” comes into the picture. Once lockdowns are lifted, there is no immediate return to “normal.” In fact, it’s unlikely we will ever return to the pre-pandemic world, given the irreversible psychological and material shock to human civilization for years to come.

The best model for this is Taiwan, which has largely shunned big hammers in favor of an “eternal dance.” At the heart of the Taiwanese model is a strong bond of trust between the leadership, under President Tsai Ing-wen, the health professionals, and the people.

Since earlier this year, the island nation has adopted the large-scale production and supply of masks and basic medical equipment for the safety of its citizens and frontliners; imposed strict guidelines for targeted quarantines (especially visitors from overseas); and launched among the most impressively proactive contact tracing and mass testing programs in the world.

It also imposed early travel restrictions on China. The upshot is among the lowest infection rates and fatalities on earth, despite Taiwan’s proximity to mainland China. While democratic South Korea and Germany have shown us the best versions of “The Hammer,” Taiwan has shown us the best version of “The Dance.”

Moving forward, we need to internalize precautionary measures against the plague, like how Hemingway’s matador, Manuel, “knew all about bulls. He did not have to think about them. He just did the right thing. His eyes noted things and his body performed the necessary measures without thought. If he thought about it, he would be gone.”

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