To Take A Stand

As of Sunday, 8:13 p.m., Feb. 23, 2020, the COVID-19 global snapshot was this: 78,830 confirmed cases and 2,469 deaths. Of the total, 76,936 confirmed cases and 2,442 deaths were in China. The rest are scattered in 30 countries worldwide and one cruise ship, the Diamond Princess.

World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus believes the world still has a chance to contain it, but that opportunity is narrowing. The trouble is that the WHO still has no idea how the virus might spread around the world, hence, the call for a harmonized global effort to contain and defeat it. But that depends on the data the world is fed.

Researchers now believe “patient zero,” the original person with the infection, brought the disease to the Wuhan market from “another location.” Wuhan hosts China’s most advanced virus research laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, its only biosafety level 4 super-lab dealing with serious infectious diseases. China’s been accused of silencing dissenting voices. A whistleblower was punished for warning about the outbreak before he caught the illness and died in Wuhan. Videos circulating on social media show scenes of convulsing patients and people being tended to by doctors wearing hazmat suits.

Bill Gates warned at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting in Seattle just hours before the first case was confirmed in Cairo, Egypt, that COVID-19 in Africa could overwhelm health services and trigger a pandemic that could cause 10 million deaths. US Republican Senator Tom Cotton says it’s time for the Chinese Communist Party CCP) to reveal what it knows about COVID-19 after the country’s CCP daily newspaper, Global Times, cited new research claiming that the virus is transmitted from human to human, and didn’t originate from animals at the seafood market. The outbreak has infected and killed patients all over the world.

Italy reported its first death early Saturday among 17 confirmed cases, including its first known instance of local transmission. Reported infections more than quadrupled prompting officials to order schools, restaurants, and businesses to close. Authorities called off the Venice Carnival.

In South Korea, reported infections had more than doubled to 433. Of the new cases, most were traced to a person who was at a church in Daegu. Cases in one hospital jumped from 16 to 108 overnight.

In Japan, hundreds of passengers on the cruise ship Diamond Princess have been infected, with three deaths so far. In China, a person infected five relatives without ever showing signs of infection; a Chinese warship’s crew has been quarantined; and Chinese banks are reportedly destroying, deep-cleaning, and disinfecting cash to prevent the virus from transferring to humans.

Business recovery is too early to discuss, yet, China’s moving heaven and earth to project a return to normality. In Laos, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi “noted a decline” in newly detected Chinese cases. ASEAN members were leaned on to “relax bans” on Chinese nationals and other travel restrictions. China’s central bank predicted a “limited short-term” economic impact and said the country was “confident in winning the fight” against the epidemic. It sought to “ease global investors’ worries” about COVID-19’s potential damage to the world’s second-largest economy by recently cutting several of its key lending rates, including the benchmark lending rate. It urged banks to extend cheap loans to the worst-hit companies which are “struggling to resume production” and are running out of cash.

Some analysts believe China’s economy could contract in 1Q2020 from 4Q2019 due to the combined supply-and-demand shocks caused by the virus and strict government containment measures. On an annual basis, growth could fall by as much as half from 6% in the fourth quarter. A rebound in the spring assumes that the virus is contained early and that factories hit by staff and raw material shortages could normalize in the next few weeks. However, transport restrictions remain in place in many parts of the country. While more firms are reopening, disruptions are starting to spill over into global supply chains as far away as the United States.

Finance leaders from the Group of 20 major economies were set to discuss risks to the world economy in Saudi Arabia this weekend. The International Monetary Fund said it was too soon to assess what the virus impact would be on global growth. The ASEAN bloc, China’s second-largest trading partner, is willing to cooperate with Beijing but the extent of enthusiasm varies widely.

China’s sending mixed signals. One: “We are taking harsh measures by locking down 400 million and of that 250 million under quarantine. They can’t travel and infect other countries.” Two: “Come on in, the water’s fine. Lift your travel restrictions and come to China.”

Due to our proximity to China, we face greater risks than other countries. Apart from tourists, students and businessmen with permanent business visas, mainlanders are found in POGOs (Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators), small-scale businesses, construction projects, and mining. We have more than 230,000 OFWs working in China, Hong Kong, and Macau. Manila ranks 14th out of 30 global cities receiving airline passengers from 18 high-risk cities in China.

As such, all persons except Filipino citizens and permanent resident visa holders were temporarily barred from entering the country. A temporary ban on Filipinos from traveling to China or its special administrative region was also instituted. A mandatory 14-day quarantine for Filipinos returning from China or its special administrative regions was announced. Visa upon arrival (VUA) for Chinese nationals has been suspended. The biggest impact will be felt in trade, travel and tourism. The Banko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) noted that the outbreak could cut GDP growth by 0.8% if it lasts for six months.

Trade, tourism, travel, transportation, consumption, agriculture and manufacturing value chains, global supply chains, shipping, food security, customs revenues and more are getting a daily beating worldwide. SMEs are being hammered. Is there financial bridging plan for all of them? How about a stimulus package when the signs are clearly on the downtrend? Global recession is looming on the horizon. We must brace for impact while ensuring our local economy is shielded as much as possible.


Rafael M. Alunan III is a former Secretary of Interior and Local Government and chairs the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations.