There is so much at stake in the just-announced two-week lockdown — referred to as an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) — of Metro Manila and nearby provinces from Aug. 6 to 20. The National Capital Region and surrounding areas are the center of economic activity of the country, accounting for more than half of the economy. Thus, the fresh round of tight restrictions in mobility and the mass closure of establishments will come at a huge cost to the government, the private sector, and especially the population.
Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Chua said that based on the latest estimates of the state planning agency National Economic and Development Authority (Neda), each week of ECQ in Metro Manila alone would cost the economy P105 billion in forgone output. A week of ECQ would also push 444,000 Filipinos out of work and drive 177,000 more Filipinos into poverty.
As the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 became imminent, the business community last week joined the call of health experts for an immediate lockdown of NCR and the surrounding provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan, and Rizal. Presidential adviser for entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion said that micro, small-, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) were open to a hard lockdown this August instead of risking a longer one later this year if the Delta variant were to spread unchecked. The Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc. (FFCCCII) also backed the recommendation of the independent Octa Research Group for what the experts called a “circuit-breaker” lockdown.
“The NCR is very close to this 30 percent Delta resilience. It is expected to enter Delta resilience in the next few weeks. A circuit breaker lockdown will allow us to achieve this level of population protection. It will slow viral transmission,” said OCTA Research fellow and molecular biologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco Jr.
“Projections based on the behavior of the Delta variant in our Asean neighbors suggest that the surge will begin to impact our health care system in the NCR by the middle of August. Our hospitals will become overwhelmed by the end of August,” added Austriaco. Thus, “The longer we wait to act, the harder it will be to halt and reverse the surge.”
The main reason the private sector is supporting a lockdown is to ensure the survival of their businesses and their employees. Concepcion explained that if an early lockdown stopped the spread of the virus, this would give the private sector an opportunity to recover early losses during the seasonal Christmas boom of the fourth quarter. This coming holiday season, he added, is special in that the traditional surge in consumer purchases would be enhanced by spending for the May 2022 elections, which “will definitely start by that time.”
If the preemptive lockdown is to work, however, the government has to do much more to salvage an economy plunged deep in recession by the health crisis. The administration must ensure that local governments rigorously enforce the restrictions under the ECQ status, blocking superspreader events and making sure their constituents adhere to health protocols.
It must also ramp up the country’s vaccination program during the two-week lull in economic activity. As the government’s chief economist Chua stressed, the detrimental impact of the ECQ could be partly reversed if the next few weeks are used to accelerate the vaccination of everyone in the high-risk areas. “This way, the ECQ will be an investment to pave the way for a recovery once we control the Delta [variant’s] spread,” he said.
Likewise, the government needs to provide financial assistance to the poor—an urgent measure given that it is barring millions of people from going to work and earning their daily keep. The Department of Budget and Management must quickly identify the savings that departments and agencies can contribute to this fund, including all unobligated appropriations—or whose contracts for programs and projects have not yet been awarded—from the P4.1-trillion 2020 national budget, the validity of which was extended by President Duterte up to end-2021.
The private sector is once again called to pitch in by helping the government speed up the vaccination program. Millions of vaccine doses have been imported by the private sector through the Department of Health, and these are expected to start arriving this month.
The concerted effort needed to stop the spread of the Delta variant rests as much on the general populace, who have to continue to hunker down and follow the basic health protocols: Wear face masks and shields, wash hands frequently, practice physical distancing, and stay home.
If everyone does his or her part, the country can hopefully look forward to a welcome break from the somber crisis: a bullish Christmas season.
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