Confounding and confusing
Once again, President Duterte had to step in and end the confusion when he junked on Monday the proposal to place the entire country under the most relaxed of quarantine restrictions starting March 1, in a bid to inject more life into the badly battered economy.
The shift to looser lockdown protocols will only happen once COVID-19 vaccines become available, declared presidential spokesperson Harry Roque. No vaccine, no modified general community quarantine (MGCQ).
It was a rare win for the health and science experts, who had fiercely cautioned the government against the move to shift the country—including COVID-19 epicenter Metro Manila—to MGCQ status as fresh infection cases may hit 2,400 a day by end-March. The Octa Research Group pointed out in a Feb. 17 report that this was the same level in NCR in August 2020 when the pandemic became “unmanageable,” prompting health workers to call for a “timeout” and the NCR had to be placed again under the strictest quarantine for two weeks to curb transmissions.
Adding to their grave concerns is the emergence of the more contagious UK variant of COVID-19, which may lead to a 15-fold spike in cases in the Philippines. More than 60 Filipinos have tested positive for the UK variant. The Department of Health has also detected two new “mutations of concern” in Cebu that are now under further investigation.
Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua last week appealed to Mr. Duterte to shift the entire country to MGCQ as early as March 1, ostensibly to address the rising hunger incidence as millions have lost their jobs due to the quarantine restrictions that have been in place for close to a year.
That the lobby was supported by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) and eventually seconded by the majority of the mayors of Metro Manila, in the face of scientific data against such a move and with the first COVID-19 jabs yet to arrive, left many citizens dumbfounded. But that has been, from all appearances, the confounding pattern of the administration: Approve the policy first, then consider the possible dire consequences later, leading to unnecessary vexation among the implementing local government unit (LGU) leaders and confusion among Filipinos already chafing under the world’s longest lockdown.
The IATF, for example, recently approved the reopening of cinemas, apparently without consulting LGUs and without the corresponding guidelines, and even if staying in an enclosed space for an extended period is deemed one of the easiest ways to contract COVID-19. Howls of protest from surprised Metro Manila mayors led to the postponement of the plan to March 1. Some mayors have declared that, despite the announced relaxation, they will not allow cinemas to reopen in their cities.
“Parang nagli-litmus test sila (IATF) kung open ba ’yung public doon sa idea, which causes confusion,” lamented Makati Mayor Abby Binay. “Kasi ’di ba parang sabi bukas, so sasabihin namin hindi pa pwede magbukas, so parang kami ang kontrabida. Sasabihin namin na wala pang guidelines. Nagkakagulo, nalilito lahat ng tao. Tapos kami ang inaaway, ’yung mga mayor na nagi-implement, kasi sila ho policy, pero kami ang nai-implement… Kami ang napapagod, kami ang napapagalitan.”
The same pattern was seen in January when Mr. Duterte thumbed down the floated proposal from his task force to allow 10- to 14-year-olds to go out of their homes and visit malls, again in hopes of breathing more life into the economy. This was despite concerns that those below 18 could become “supercarriers” of COVID-19.
Chua does make a valid point on the urgent need to revive the economy, as the cost of the lockdown continues to mount. But that is not possible without mass vaccination, which means Mr. Duterte, who has unequivocally declared that the revival of the economy would hinge primarily on the availability of the vaccine, should take to task those in charge of the vaccination program, for the unacceptable delay in the vaccine roll-out.
The Philippines, still without a fixed date for major vaccine arrivals, is now among the last to begin a mass immunization program in Southeast Asia. As former socioeconomic planning chief Ernesto Pernia pointed out: “I think the discomfort of the people is that palagi tayong late eh. Slow talaga. Late and slow motion. Tingnan mo ’tong vaccine.”
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez has apologized for the delays and has asked for more patience from the public, but whatever goodwill that gesture of humility generated was all but undercut by presidential chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo’s arrogant scolding of the public: “Nakapaghintay na nga tayo ng isang taon, ano ba naman yung isang buwang maghintay ulit?”
And there is the administration in a nutshell—nearly one year into a devastating pandemic, still all over the place.
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