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The positive uses of positive cases

The conventional wisdom is that a protracted pandemic is bad. The cumulative effect of a year of isolation and stress has wounded our mental well-being, much of which will go unnoticed or unspoken. The false promise of remote learning and the illusory seduction of work-from-home have manufactured helplessness. The jolt of a year ago, particularly for families and small businesses, has been muted to an economic contraction not seen since the 1940s. This pandemic is really bad, any way you cut it.

However, we grant less the possibility that the pandemic is useful. Staring down at the raw numbers in recent weeks, it seems hard to believe that the prolonged lockdown and anemic government response could be functional or beneficial for anyone. But that is precisely the important paradox: Some groups benefit from the rise of positive COVID-19 cases.

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I don’t mean that there is a nefarious plot to prolong this pandemic. But I am open to the possibility that the pandemic benefits some groups, particularly the political class and the educated elite. They probably don’t recognize that they benefit from it nor do they intend to get anything out of it, but little-known, unwitting consequences can still be useful.

For one, cash aid and food packs evoke generosity, compassion, and pity but remind us that we are servile to the political class. The effort is to relieve us of our misery, while blowing smoke over the reality that there is little to no effort to transform the systems that enable that misery. This lockdown expands an enduring Filipino tradition: The political class prefers to infantilize and regard us as passive recipients of handouts.

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This passivity also provides the political class a counterweight to their bad behavior. Their missteps have run the gamut—jumping the vaccine line, smuggling yet-to-be approved vaccines, violating quarantine restrictions. These offenses would have gotten the rest of us in serious trouble or perhaps fired a long time ago in any conventional job. But the political class need hungry, desperate citizens who can be accused of dishonesty—say, to buy lugaw—or who can be easily punished—say, in dog cages or in the midday sun—to justify their own transgressions. This lockdown cements another tradition: The political class can behave badly and get away with it.

The poor also provide a captive constituency. The poverty rate has decreased in recent years, but the pandemic is reversing this trend. This has resulted in an additional 2.7 million poor Filipinos in 2020, as reported by the World Bank.

These are millions more reasons for the political class to feel good about themselves. They can practice their public-mindedness and their version of Christian morality. The poor are alleged to be too busy to care about human rights and rising inequities. So long as the political class give enough to the poor to sustain their deprivation but not too much that they question its legitimacy, this lockdown can only uptick the approval ratings, 2.7 million times over.

The educated elite also benefit. Public health is the science and art of cultivating our health and well-being from before we’re born through our deathbed. Extremely diverse and highly complex, public health strategies require a multitude of disciplines. Since researching, teaching, and thinking about the pandemic demand considerable knowledge and evidence base, it is irresponsible and unjustifiable for public health to be vested in a single discipline.

But this pandemic makes possible a hegemony in which the medical professions have ownership and authority over our efforts to contain it. The other sciences and the humanities, I suspect, would welcome closer partnerships with medicine. The past year, however, puts in question whether medicine is interested in loosening its grip. This pandemic locks in another Filipino tradition: the presumption that medical inputs lead to social outputs.

The rising positive cases and prolonged lockdown do not signal dysfunction. They are instead consequences of a system that benefits from their persistence. Will this pandemic make significant inroads into that system? This is not likely, because the system is functioning as expected.

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Dr. Ronald del Castillo is a consultant on social and behavior change communication and was professor of psychology, public health, and social policy. The views here are his own.

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TAGS: Commentary, COVID-19 pandemic, Ronald del Castillo
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