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Opening up the economy

Opening up the economy amid a public health crisis remains a challenge for the country one year after initial economic lockdowns in March 2020. The lockdowns caused the economy to contract 9.6 percent in 2020. Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces of Rizal, Bulacan, Cavite, and Laguna have just exited from two weeks of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) to modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ). The two weeks of ECQ is estimated to have caused economic losses of P180 billion.

Let’s take a look at where we are in this public health crisis. In the last two weeks, new cases were up 28.6 percent nationwide and 13 percent in Metro Manila. The National Capital Region accounted for half of the new cases. We have 183,527 active cases as of April 15; about half are in Metro Manila. We also have 15,594 deaths.

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More concerning, the positivity rate (the percentage of those who test positive versus total tests on any given day) has been hovering around 24 percent. Since testing numbers run between only 30,000 and 60,000 tests per day, we should expect that many asymptomatic positives may be roaming around and potentially spreading COVID-19. Take note that those carrying the UK and South African variants are faster spreaders, and we don’t have a complete picture of those numbers yet. Hence the importance of maintaining minimum health standards for all. It’s still back to basics even after a vaccination.

Against this backdrop, what should be done?

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First, let’s expand testing and push it to 100,000 tests per day. This gives us a clearer picture of the true extent of the spread. The addition of antigen tests is a step in the right direction because it provides an additional view and numbers to the tested pool of people. Pooled testing (where groups of five swab specimens are batched in a single test) will also provide additional numbers.

Second, let’s fix contact tracing once and for all. This has been the biggest single failure in the government’s COVID-19 response. Contact tracing has used unconnected technologies and even manual forms, the net result of which is poor contact tracing. For all the contact tracers that the government has supposedly hired, where do their reports go? And for all those little slips of paper we have to fill out when we enter a store, mall, restaurant, or building, where do they go? Does government even analyze them?

Why don’t we begin to integrate the data contained in each contact tracing program into a single database which can be analyzed by a team? We can also standardize the data collection of the contact tracers and place them in this database, just like how we placed all lab test data in a single database for better analysis. Finally, why don’t we flip the idea of contact tracing on its head and instead do “disease surveillance” as some cities like Taguig are doing? Instead of waiting for someone to test positive before they start contact tracing, they search for symptomatics and isolate them proactively before they test them after a short period of quarantine and isolation. The result is fewer new cases and deaths as a percentage of the population.

Third, let’s prepare to accelerate vaccinations. I understand that people may think we are in short supply of vaccines now and that the government is planning from a perspective of scarcity. But that picture will change sooner than we think. For the first quarter of 2021, we received 3,025,600 doses of Sinovac and AstraZeneca. Another 2 million are expected in April, 4.194 million in May, and 10.5 million in June—16.7 million in the second quarter alone. We expect 43.5 million to 53.5 million doses in the third quarter and 45 million to 60 million in the fourth quarter.

There will be enough supply for the country. But those vaccines will not be effective unless they are actually jabbed into arms.

The key to opening up the economy will lie in executing well on at least these three fronts.

Guillermo M. Luz is chief resilience officer of the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation (www.pdrf.org).

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

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