To Take A Stand

Aye, that is the question. The extended enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) for Luzon will end in 10 days, by the end of April. The President and the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases are between a rock and a hard place; between saving lives at the expense of saving the economy and between saving the economy at the expense of saving lives.

Which comes first? That’s really a tough question as lives and the economy are intertwined. They matter dearly to all of us. Will the ECQ be lifted even on a selective or partial basis after April 30, or will the ECQ be extended again under more stringent conditions? We’ve seen how the national government has been struggling to provide timely information and guidance, and push down funding and resources on time. But they’re encountering inefficiencies; there’s a lack of synchronicity at the local level; and a disturbing state of non-compliance of quarantine guidelines in various communities.

We’re fighting an unseen biological enemy that we don’t know much of. What we know about it today is much different from what we knew in March. We continually discover new things about it but doubt if the scientific community has reached that point where there’s enough data to peer into the very essence of COVID-19 in order to devise a strategy to kill the virus that causes the disease. COVID-19’s defeat must be total, delivered by scientific means, not through political interventions. The virus is still very much in control of the situation and the timeline.

We’re running blind. We don’t have the antibodies nor the vaccine. We can’t fight a war that way. The commonsensical thing to do is to hunker down and wait until we find our bearings. Since the virus is still very much in control it would be foolish and fatal to underestimate it while overestimating our capacity and ability to fight it. How much do we really know about this virus? I’ve come across reports that it has mutated and keeps mutating; that patients who’ve recovered contracted it again — the same virus or a mutated version?

Early on we were told that the virus had a preferential option for the senior sector of the population. But now we know that anyone with preconditions and a low immune system, young and old, are vulnerable. We keep getting conflicting reports whether the virus is airborne or not; whether social distancing should be three feet or 13 feet away; whether to use face masks or not; what kind of masks to use; when to be intubated or use ventilators or respirators; when and where to get tested. Situation’s fluid.

It has brought the entire world to a standstill. Every nation around the globe has been afflicted by the virus. Planet Earth’s on lockdown, affecting the global economy, straining financial systems. It has shut down commercial and industrial activity. Only essential services are allowed to sustain life. Schools, factories, malls, churches, travel, tourism, transportation are now silent.

People are locked in their dwellings, like caged animals in a zoo. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Frontliners – doctors, nurses, hospital staff, policemen – are falling fast to the virus.

I have no doubt that our government is deeply concerned about the effects of a prolonged lockdown that’s already wreaking havoc on our economy, financial system, and wellbeing. I long to reunite with my children, grandchildren, friends and colleagues. But lifting restrictions too early could lead to a second wave that would surely overwhelm the health system; infect and kill more of us; and further batter other systems, governance structures and social services that sustain us to the point of collapse.

How will the government know when it’s safe to lift restrictions? As they say, the devil’s in the details. Last week I came across a news report that the World Health Organization had issued the following guidelines for when countries can consider it safe to end their lockdown.

Health system capacities are in place to detect, isolate, and treat every COVID-19 case and trace every contact.

Outbreak risks are minimized in special settings like health facilities and nursing homes.

Preventive measures are in place in workplaces, schools and other places where it’s essential for people to go.

Importation risks can be managed.

Communities are fully educated, engaged, and empowered to adjust to the new norm.

Those guidelines are duly noted but they may not encompass everything that a particular state must take into account given its unique circumstances. I’m confident however in saying that we don’t meet any of those criteria at this stage. I believe the most important point to consider is this: If we don’t have enough test kits to check the symptomatic and asymptomatic, we won’t have the empirical data needed to make an informed decision to lift or not to lift whenever and wherever. At this stage, the top priority is human life. Once gone, it can’t be recovered. If we’re in doubt, we better not. Err on the side of health.

In any crisis management situation, the goal is to bring the crisis under control. Bringing it under control requires focus, discipline, synergy, hands-on management, strict supervision, quick reaction, skillful execution, and determination to succeed. Once controlled, the final and most crucial phase of crisis management is recovery. To many, recovery means restoring what we knew in the past to be normal. To others, recovery means bringing the state of the nation forward to a transformed state, to a new normal.

This crisis provides us the opportunity to reflect on whether we want to return to what we were before or dedicate ourselves to work for a better Philippines for all Filipinos. Do we want to return to the past that was responsible for our state of unpreparedness, our state of weakness, our state of division? Or do we seek a rebirth from this unprecedented global crisis as a united nation, conscious of our obligations to country and each other to build a better world for generations to come? That’s the real question. The choice is ours to make.


Rafael M. Alunan III chairs the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and the Harvard Kennedy School Alumni Association of the Philippines, Inc. He served as Secretary of the Interior and Local Government during the term of President Fidel V. Ramos.