The Lancet, the most accessible peer-reviewed medical journal, discusses the COVID-19 crisis in stark terms. Read Roy Anderson et al., “How will country-based mitigation measures influence the course of the COVID-19 epidemic?” (March 9, 2020). The authors state that “we calculate that approximately 60% of the population would become infected.”
It comes nevertheless with a qualification that this is a “very worst-case scenario.” There are uncertain factors like the transmission in children and remote areas. Mitigating measures like forced and voluntary quarantine will significantly reduce transmission.
The COVID-19 crisis has been likened to a world war, and rightly so. But this is not a war between nations, not an ideological war, not a political war, not a class war, not an imperialist war. It is a war pitting humanity against the pandemic. In this war, we will be learning warfare through warfare.
Precisely because the world is suddenly confronted with a novel coronavirus, the response, too, has to be novel. The world has to act despite being severely constrained by unknowns and uncertainties. It is thus understandable that countries and policy-makers are groping their way to resolve the crisis.
Even the most advanced economies like Europe, Japan, and South Korea were caught unawares. Norway — the utopia for many, an example of the much-envied Scandinavian model of development, featuring a strong public health system — has recently imposed a country lockdown.
Without a vaccine, and it will take more than a year to develop one even as the transmission grows exponentially, the best that societies can do is to slow down the spread through draconian measures. The jargon is “flatten the epidemic curve.”
Perhaps, we can learn from China, which has taken extreme, aggressive measures to flatten the curve. But then, many countries, even those with current authoritarian leaders like the Philippines, do not have the system that China has.
Take note of the commentary of an analyst Adam Wren in his article “China stopped the coronavirus. Your country won’t” (medium.com, March 9, 2020):
“In the early days of the outbreak there were videos of people being seemingly kidnapped from the streets or marched out of apartment buildings and into vans by Chinese government officials.
“These were people being taken away for mandatory testing because they had been in contact with somebody that had been confirmed infected.
“How many governments have police or military forces capable of collecting hundreds of thousands of people for mandatory testing?”
This is tokhang! But Philippine-style tokhang won’t work.
China, notwithstanding its becoming a market economy, still maintains the structure of a command economy that can produce 1.6 million test kits per week. The Philippines relies on the market, which has panicked, and the essential medical supplies have vanished.
China has an effective tracking and tracing system because it controls the information and the apps. The Philippines still has to put in place a national ID system and the registries of the basic sectors are outdated and spoiled.
The citizens of China are trained to follow rules; the principle of “democratic centralism” applies not only to the Communist Party but also to the whole of society. The organized citizens of the Philippines associate united action with civil disobedience.
Worse, Philippine-style tokhang will only result in more deaths — including extra-judicial killings.
But what is undeniable is that collective action is essential and urgent. It is surely difficult to undertake collective action when society itself is fractious and its institutions are weak. But the existential threat of COVID-19 will compel us to do collective action.
The Lancet article says: “Individual behavior will be crucial to control the spread of COVID-19.” But the individual behavior we desire will run afoul without collective action. Amid the crisis, stories abound regarding panic buying, hoarding, non-compliance with rules, and selfishness all around. This is human impulse that nevertheless leads to a herd behavior that creates systemic risks.
We need a positive kind of collective action. This will however involve extraordinary and even draconian measures. It will necessarily involve the whole society.
Government must provide all the relevant information and communicate it well. It must be transparent and encourage discussion and debate.
Society, the private sector in particular, should allow government to intervene in solving market failures. And civil society should step in not only to help provide the essential services but also to address governance failures.
Remember, this is humanity against COVID-19. COVID-19 threatens everyone. COVID-19 does not choose its victim whether one is a capitalist or a worker, a Dutertard or a Yellowtard, a communist or a liberal, a Democrat or a Republican, a Christian or a Moro, a Tagalog or a Bisaya. We all have to act as one.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.