Lockdown – and what else?
Just a little over two weeks after presidential spokesperson Harry Roque crowed that the Duterte administration’s response to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic has been “excellent,” the so-called National Capital Region Plus was overwhelmed by skyrocketing daily infection cases, forcing the return of the most severe of quarantine measures.
In the worst case of déjà vu, enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was reimposed in Metro Manila, Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan, and Rizal starting March 29. It was supposed to be lifted on April 4 but was quickly extended to April 11 as daily case rates continued to accelerate, ballooning from just 3,356 new cases on March 8 to a high of 12,576 on April 3. Total cases are feared to reach the grim one million mark before the end of the month.
“We never expected that the surge will be more than that of last year,” protested Interior Undersecretary Epimaco Densing III, unwittingly admitting to the ineptness and obliviousness of the administration’s response. (In quick damage-control mode, his own department disowned Densing’s statement, saying it was only a personal view.) The “unexpected” surge pushed the health care system to the breaking point, the same situation seen in March last year when the suffocating lockdowns were first implemented, and again in August when health care workers called for a “timeout” after mobility restrictions eased to revive the flattened economy resulted in a slew of new COVID-19 cases.
The current ECQ is supposed to once again give the health care system much-needed relief and buy time “to further intensify testing, tracing, quarantine, isolation, treatment, and vaccination,” according to Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua. However, without the government putting forth any clear strategy and deliverables on these crucial fronts, the two-week ECQ will be for naught— except to leave a projected 252,000 additional individuals without jobs and plunge 102,000 more Filipinos into poverty.
Harsh quarantine measures, or bewildering variations thereof, are set to further extend the Philippines’ unenviable record of having the world’s longest lockdown, which has already passed the one-year mark with little to show for it save for millions of Filipinos wrenched from their jobs, thousands of businesses shuttered, and the unwelcome distinction of having the most active cases in Asean at 152,562 as of April 6, plus the most new deaths and the highest number of new cases at 9,373, accounting for 60 percent of total new cases in the region.
How much of that can be attributed to muleheaded top officials refusing to budge from old, discredited views even as the pandemic has swiftly evolved and outrun those unable to adapt quickly enough? Testing “czar” Vince Dizon, for one, still adamantly refuses to heed longstanding calls to conduct mass testing, saying the government will keep to its “risk-based” and “targeted” testing. Incredibly, Dizon still thinks mass testing means testing “lahat ng buong populasyon ng isang bansa,” hence his rejection of the idea. The Akbayan party list rightly denounced that position as “absurd,” pointing out that it is only in the Philippines where “we have a testing czar who rejects mass testing.”
One year into the pandemic, Dizon has talked about ramping up tests to 80,000 to 90,000 a day in Metro Manila and nearby provinces, but current DOH data show that actual testing has only managed to reach 27,055 as of April 6.
Contact tracing “czar” Benjamin Magalong, meanwhile, admitted that contact tracing had “deteriorated” in the past weeks: From seven people traced for every COVID-19 positive case, the number was down to a dismal three. Magalong himself would come down with COVID-19, joining the phalanx of administration officials sidelined by the illness.
As for the vaccination program, some 826,607 Filipinos have been vaccinated, including 783,085 health care workers — still way off the government target to have at least 70 million Filipinos inoculated by the end of the year to achieve so-called herd immunity.
“We are failing, and we are performing worse than the rest of the region,” warned members of the health panel of the House of Representatives. Added Marikina City Rep. Stella Luz Quimbo: “Extending the ECQ will be useless unless DOH revises its approach to COVID control”— an assessment independently borne out by a recent study (published in voxeu.org) that looked at the effectiveness of lockdowns in 152 countries over the last year: “Initially, lockdowns are associated with a significant reduction in the spread of the virus and the number of related deaths, but this effect declines over time,” said the economists behind the study. “Lockdown does not work as a continuous containment policy in the event of a protracted pandemic.”
Who’s holding one’s breath that the bright minds in the Palace would, for once, listen to sound science-based advice?
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