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Lockdown costs and benefits

Addressing Asean heads of state last week, President Duterte called for a “reboot of the anti-virus plan” in the context of the need for a concerted regional approach against COVID-19. A review of the national COVID-19 strategy might also be timely to consider perspectives from the six-month struggle with the pandemic.

COVID-19 remains a critical public health problem. Netizens deserve credit for raising the alarm in mid-January about the mysterious virus surging in China and urging a travel ban; January arrivals from China were averaging at almost 5,000 a day. Some executive agencies and local government units responded quickly.

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On Jan. 23, the Civil Aeronautics Board ordered the immediate suspension of direct charter flights to Boracay from Wuhan, the contagion’s epicenter. The Bureau of Quarantine, the province of Cebu, and the city of Olongapo also acted decisively to protect their communities from possibly contagious sea and air travelers.

Diplomatic concerns about appearing “unfair” to China prevailed at the national level and delayed action. President Duterte, supported by Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., as well as Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and Senate health committee chair Bong Go, did not order the travel ban until Jan. 31.

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Second, the Philippines, like many other countries, chose to copy China’s lockdown strategy against the pandemic. An estimated four billion people, half the planet’s population, became subject to some level of government-imposed quarantine. Especially when applied to large, densely-populated areas, lockdown was a crude instrument, the tool of feudal states in the Middle Ages to deal with unknown plagues, like the 14th-century bubonic plague, Black Death. “Quarantine” itself came from quaranta, the 40-day waiting period before ships arriving in Venice could unload passengers and crew.

Since the ECQ imposed on March 15, Metro Manila has moved well past 40 days into a fourth month of lockdown, already a world record. Extended lockdown made COVID-19 both an economic and a health crisis. Graduating Metro Manila to GCQ did little to revive the economy, because the lack of public transport services kept people from workplaces, a problem detected from the first day of lockdown when frontliners had to beg motorists for rides to the frontlines.

Third, the quarantine did reduce the speed of infection, giving time to build up the capacity for testing against the virus. Starting in March with less than 10 government laboratories and a testing capacity of 300/day, nearly 70 laboratories, about two-thirds private, can now do 30,000/day and targeting 50,000 by July. This is an impressive feat, achieved by government and private sector investments in the purchase of testing equipment. Now, we face the problem of underutilized capacity. The Philippine Red Cross, charging the lowest rate for the gold-standard RT-PCR test, is using less than 10 percent of capacity, comparable to the utilization of public laboratories.

Much work remains to reap the benefits of higher testing capacity, starting with more intensive use of the facilities. Reduction of transmission, the key to economic revival, also requires getting test results quickly and, as the World Health Organization noted, effective tracing procedures. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque denied that the Philippines had the highest number of COVID-19 cases among the 22 countries of the West Pacific region, which no one had claimed. But the WHO data indicated an issue of concern: Despite stringent quarantine measures, the Philippines registered the region’s fastest rise in COVID-19 cases in the period June 16-27.

Fourth, lockdown is not a cost-free strategy. Its enforcement alone, dependent on military and police personnel, taxes government resources and strains relations with the civilian population. It also seemed to make little sense to arrest people (now running reportedly at 200,000) for breaching social distance rules and then risking more infection by confining them in congested jails.

SWS surveys in May reported 90 percent of respondents feeling stressed by COVID-19 and its impact on their access to transport (77 percent) and goods (80 percent). But fear of the disease encouraged the majority (87 percent) to observe health precautions (masks, social distancing, etc.) as best they could.

Despite the “pasaway” narrative, 84 percent of respondents accepted lockdown restrictions. Effective communication of rules, their sensible and uniform implementation, and credible progress in controlling transmission will be necessary for these restrictions to remain acceptable.

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Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).

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