Treacherous tightrope

Let’s face it: We completely botched handling the pandemic. A year after enhanced community quarantine, aka lockdown, was first imposed in the country, we are not just back to square one, but, according to highly respected former health secretary Esperanza Cabral in a widely circulated post, we are 10 steps back from square one.

“Square one was when we had just shut down the economy and people had spare change in their pockets… when private sector was able to step up, provide financial protection for their employees, and spend billions to help others… when hospitals were full but doctors and health care workers, though scared… were fresh and eager to do battle with this particular enemy….” But, she notes, we don’t have those things this time. The doctors and health workers are battered and tired like everyone else. Many of them have died. Government coffers are depleted and it is deeper in debt. And that is why we are worse than back to square one.

Casting blame and pointing fingers can be very tempting, but dwelling on these is not going to help us in the midst of the urgency we all face. What we need now is a clear mind to analyze the totality of our predicament; the honesty to admit that major mistakes were made; the wisdom not to keep forcing approaches and solutions that fell flat, as if expecting different results; the humility to accept the need to learn from and get help from others, rather than “play God” and apply the heavy hand of authority on the problem; the sense of urgency to pursue desired outcomes without wasteful delay; and the integrity to set aside selfish motivations in genuine pursuit of the common good.

Having a clear mind means better understanding of the treacherous tightrope we have found ourselves treading. We perhaps forgot, until the sobering data on relevant numbers other than on COVID-19 came in, that we stood to sacrifice far more than lives lost to the virus with the draconian measures we took in the effort to quell it. As a widely circulated blog put it: “Think taking a hammer to swat a fly. After a while, the room is demolished, but the fly is still there. We are the room, COVID is the fly.” In sum, as the blogger put it, government did not work smart. It worked heavy.

Neda Secretary Karl Chua saw it in the 2020 death statistics. “While deaths from communicable diseases and accidents decreased due to less people going out, deaths from mental health and poverty increased due to quarantine and loss of income,” he points out in a presentation. Deaths due to intentional self-harm jumped 25.7 percent, and fatal heart ailments rose to 99,680 after averaging 82,547 in the previous five years. More also died from diabetes, digestive system disorders and other endocrine, nutritional, and metabolic illnesses compared to annual averages over 2015-2019. Of even more concern to him is the likely future rise in those deaths given the severe decline in health care this year. We thus need to see the total picture in devising the right approach and strategy to manage not the pandemic alone, but the far bigger crisis we made it induce.

There are so many good practices we could have adopted since last year from nearby neighbors with similar circumstances yet far lower COVID-19 numbers. Yet we seemed unable, even unwilling, to copy and apply the same precision tools they used to great advantage. These included localized lockdowns; effective and unified digital technology tools for testing, tracing, and treatment; and a well-coordinated system of isolation and treatment facilities for patients and suspected carriers. But a sense of urgency also has to guide government actions, the lack of which has already led to the costly delay in our people’s access to the array of vaccines now available. Most painful of all is how certain interests appear to be thinking more of lining their pockets and pursuing political agendas at this time when the very security of multitudes of Filipinos is in question.

A sledgehammer to “swat the fly” failed to work for us before; there’s no reason to expect it would now. It’s time we employed balancing aids so we shouldn’t have to take the tightrope down to be able to walk on it.