Let the people go outdoors
The “enhanced community quarantine” has just been modified and extended in Metro Manila, Cebu, and Laguna, with a “general community quarantine” continuing in many cities and provinces. By this time, many Filipinos would have spent almost two months — and counting — holed up in their homes. Many have come to accept this as a necessary sacrifice: In the face of an uncertain disease and its even more uncertain epidemiology (no thanks to insufficient testing and contact tracing), we have resorted to the most ancient of ways to control epidemics.
Regardless of the efficacy of the quarantine, the singular focus on COVID-19 has put all other health-related activities on hold, and while as a temporary measure this might be tolerable, it is, in the long run, both untenable and unsustainable. Going outdoors—by which, I mean, even just being able to go out of one’s home—is one such activity that has not only been forbidden but in some cases even vilified and criminalized.
The benefits of spending time outdoors are manifold, and are anthropologically rooted in how humans have co-evolved with the natural environment. Exposure to sunshine and greenery are both linked to lower stress levels and better health outcomes, while physical activity—e.g. walking—remains among the few proven nonpharmacologic measures to decrease the risk of complications from noncommunicable diseases like hypertension and diabetes, which, lest we forget, remain the leading causes of death in the country.
Conversely, depriving people of time outdoors and confining them into a forcibly sedentary lifestyle have adverse consequences for physical, mental, and social health. As the World Health Organization has stated: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many of us are very restricted in our movements, it is even more important for people of all ages and abilities to be as active as possible.”
Of course, some of the bans on public parks, gyms, and recreational facilities are understandable, and so are exceptional measures for high-risk areas. Until we know more about COVID-19’s virology and epidemiology, we cannot just toss our restrictions like a frisbee in Diliman’s Sunken Garden.
However, allowing people to go outdoors need not compromise the spirit of infection control. In Hong Kong, for instance, hiking trails have remained open with physical distancing rules and a four-person limit per group. Even in badly-hit countries like Spain, authorities have given time for people to do outdoor exercise. Preventive health and preventing COVID-19 need not be mutually exclusive.
Thankfully, the IATF has recognized this, announcing just yesterday that it is allowing “limited outdoor exercise” — e.g. walking, running, and biking — even in areas with modified ECQ, provided that people practice physical distancing. This is a most welcome step, even as how it gets implemented remains a concern, given the “one size fits all” thinking in different levels of governance. Must you apply the same policy for urban centers to mountainous and coastal areas, or the poblacion of cities with its rural barangays?
Another problem is the impulse among local officials, homeowners associations, and ordinary citizens to go beyond what is sanctioned by science and policy. Perhaps the medieval idea of “quarantine”—developed centuries before people knew that microbes existed—lingers, with hawa (contagion) viewed as emanating from unknown external forces, against which the walls of one’s house provide safety. Perhaps for politicians, the fear is not so much the virus itself, but getting blamed for COVID-19 cases.
Finally, the fact that physical fitness has never been a national priority also informs the lack of resistance to moves to ban jogging and other physical activities. Alas, we’ve never had public parks to begin with; we don’t have wide-enough sidewalks, making “physical distancing” all but impossible. Ultimately, when we have the chance to build a better world after this pandemic, we must prioritize parks, green public spaces, and more walkable, bikeable communities.
Even today, however, we need not deprive millions of Filipinos, including the elderly, of an essential activity by needlessly keeping them locked inside their homes. Let us not get in the way of physical activity, fresh air, and sunshine. Let the people go outdoors.
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