To Take A Stand

Last Saturday, March 8, President Rodrigo Duterte declared a nationwide state of public health emergency pursuant to a Department of Health (DoH) letter of recommendation from Health Secretary Francisco Duque dated Feb. 21 should local transmissions occur. The day before, we learned that the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country had risen to six, two of which were deemed locally transmitted. Yesterday, four more cases were confirmed. We’re now on alert level Code Red sub-level one. It means we’re one step away from the “possible sustained community transmission” of the virus, or Code Red.

The new alert level is a preemptive call to ensure that national and local governments, as well as public and private health care providers, can prepare for possible increase in suspected and confirmed cases. It alerts the public to stay calm, be situationally aware, and to fully cooperate with concerned government agencies to ensure the nation’s safety and general welfare. For her part, Vice-President Leni Robredo called for national unity and for the right information to be disseminated to the public to stop its spread.

What does Code Red require of everyone? This is what I came across:

“Under the Code Red Alert, the inter-agency should include more government agencies to expand its response to the spread of the viral infection. Selective contact tracing will be done. Vulnerable and high-risk groups will be the priority for testing and care. Authorities should intensify its awareness to minimize the fear, anxiety, and unrest of the public. The government should pursue a “sustained inter-agency, multi-level, whole-of-society coordination and response in its combat against the virus.”

To begin with, this is not the way to communicate with government stakeholders and the general public. They want to hear SPECIFIC instructions. Spell out up front what everyone needs to know. Selective contract tracing means we lack the capacity to cast a wider net; which means many will escape through the cracks; which means that many more out there are likely infected with the virus that we don’t know about. Who are the vulnerable and high-risk groups? How will they be tested? Random just doesn’t cut it. Do we have isolation centers for those under investigation and quarantine centers for confirmed cases? Where are they located, contact details, contact persons?

The government needs to improve the accuracy and quality of information it disseminates (transparency, timeliness, thoroughness). Mass and social media have much to contribute in this area. Make it reader-friendly, clear, crisp, concise. Forget the bureaucratic jargon that puts people in a bad mood. At the moment, the people sense that the information being dished out is inaccurate, late, incomplete; transparency is suspect on account of the attitude that “panic must be averted.” That mindset doesn’t prepare the public mentally for the worst case. It only tends to anger them. The more information we have, the better for mental preparedness and orchestration of specific “whole-of-nation” (government and society) prescribed responses.

The suspicion is instinctive that the figures being fed to us are underreported, considering that the risk posed by COVID-19 is due to our proximity to China. We’re at a far greater risk of witnessing increased cases of the novel coronavirus infection compared to other countries. The country hosts hundreds of thousands of students, tourists, workers (legal and illegal) from China. They’re engaged in Philippine Offshore Gambling Operations (POGOs), mining, micro-small enterprises, construction, supply chains and prostitution; most of them unlicensed or fronted by dummies. Additionally, we have over 230,000 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) working in China and its autonomous territories, excluding South Korea, Japan, and Singapore.

The World Health Organization (WHO), the DoH, and local authorities keep reminding us to take care of our health and to protect others by doing the following:

1. Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water.

2. Maintain social distancing at least one meter (three feet) distance between yourself and anyone who’s coughing or sneezing. They spray small liquid droplets and if you’re too close, you can breathe in the virus.

3. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth because hands touch many surfaces and can pick up viruses. The virus can enter your body and can make you sick.

4. Practice respiratory hygiene, and make sure that the people around you do too. Cover your mouth and nose with a bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Dispose of the used tissue immediately.

5. Stay home if you feel unwell. If you have a fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, seek medical attention and call in so you could be directed to the right health facility.

Governments have responded in different ways. Common among them is travel restrictions — to and from cities, regions or countries — where the virus has reared its ugly head. China locked down specific areas; Italy followed suit. Japan canceled classes till April; Iran is dispensing with Friday prayers (equivalent to our Sunday Masses). Money is being washed and disinfected. Football matches are being played without the fans; classes are being held online. Foreign travel, public events, concerts, and conferences are being canceled. The Tokyo Olympics may fall victim too. In my case, I’ve indefinitely postponed a trip that I was planning for in June.

All that turbulence has devastated stock markets worldwide; trillions in market value have vaporized in the past two weeks. Bankruptcies and unemployment are rising. Malls are tail spinning; travel and tourism are in free fall. Manufacturing and global supply chains are experiencing steady disruption. Compounding matters are billions of locusts that are ravaging parts of Africa and South Asia. The steady plunge in supply and demand has everyone talking about global recession.

From a global pandemic to a global recession, all in one year. Did you ever think in your wildest dreams that 2020 would turn out this way? What else — global food shortages? WW3? That won’t surprise me any longer.


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