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Commentary

The importance of taking things seriously

While the Philippines is by no means unique among nations in its unpreparedness for an epidemic of this scale and magnitude, it is unique in how it chose to respond to the crisis, and the string of decisions its leadership has taken in the past six months.

Alarm bells were sounded as early as February this year, with congressional hearings on whether our borders ought to close given the threat of a new, mysterious virus from Wuhan, China. The growing public consensus was that in light of some neighboring countries such as Vietnam enforcing immediate bans on the free movement of Chinese nationals across their border, it might be a wise decision to do the same. Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan had already begun to feel the effects of the virus and had initiated a multipronged approach involving aggressive testing, contact-tracing, and stay-at-home orders with different degrees of severity. These countries had learned their lessons from the first SARS outbreak in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2012, and had seen their economies brought to the brink of collapse because of these outbreaks.

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At that point in time, there was no indication that the government saw or recognized any reason for urgency. Our borders remained open. We did not stockpile enough supplies and test kits. We waited until the absolute last minute to restrict travel, even after the World Health Organization (WHO) had formally declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic. We waited until the absolute last minute before announcing a total lockdown that began on March 16, but with a lead time of almost a week, inadvertently allowing hundreds if not thousands of fear-stricken and confused NCR residents to race to the airports and bus terminals to their hometowns in the meantime — hundreds if not thousands of untested and unexamined Filipinos, many of whom exported the virus nationwide.

What followed was almost three months of the harshest lockdowns the world would see, and the biggest economic blow in recent memory, wiping out more than 10 years of painstaking economic gains almost overnight as everything ground to a halt. Yet, even then, testing never began in earnest until after the worst of the lockdown was lifted. We had nothing to show for our extraordinary sacrifice.

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It’s hard to believe that it has only been about six months since the first cases of COVID-19 came to the country from the People’s Republic of China. Already, the medical crisis has changed almost everything about how we live our lives. All because those people who develop and direct policy refused to take things seriously at the outset, and then seemingly sacrificed public health and safety in favor of a half-baked attempt at restarting the economy. It is in determining the facts with a sober mind that one can expect clarity in foresight, something our leaders seem to lack.

The Philippines deserves good leadership — leadership that is not just concerned with reacting to events as they come, but the kind that proactively anticipates these events with a commonsensical, science-based approach. Leadership that has the capability to formulate a responsive and sustainable plan. This is not the time for ad libs and jokes in presidential addresses; we need a specific and detailed roadmap founded on reliable data and research, not on gut feel and broad strokes. We don’t even need to look far for inspiration: Most of our Asean neighbors have successfully flattened the curves of their respective infection rates. Surely we can figure out how we can do the same.

Furthermore, pinning an entire nation’s chances for survival on the as yet uncertain development of a vaccine is not only irresponsible, but also indicates a breathtaking dereliction of public duty — government appearing to throw up its hands in utter surrender, expecting a scared population to just “live with the virus” in the meantime with no regard for their health, safety, or quality of life.

We are in this mess because the people we elected were more concerned about sensitive diplomatic relationships, politics, and soundbites. Unfortunately for us, they are waking up only now to the reality that they have grossly overestimated their competence in the face of an unprecedented global health crisis. For all our sakes, now is the time for the adults in the room to take over, before it’s too late.

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Ryan Robert Flores is a product development manager at a design firm in Manila, dealing with clients both here and abroad.

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TAGS: Commentary, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, government leadership, Ryan Robert Flores, taking things seriously
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