COVID-19 infections in the country are feared to hit a new daily record of about 8,000 cases by the end of March. If this happens, then by the end of this month, we will be worse off than we were a year ago, when the country was first put on community quarantine because of the pandemic. All our efforts and sacrifices, and economic suffering, throughout this time, will have been for naught.
Worse, our healthcare system barely coped when we hit 7,000 daily cases in August 2020. Healthcare workers had to call for a timeout, and the government responded by reimposing stricter quarantine measures for two weeks. But as we hit 8,000 or more, it becomes uncertain if our hospitals can still address all the needs of COVID and non-COVID patients.
Cases may even hit 20,000 daily by mid-April, a research fellow at the University of the Philippines-OCTA Research Group told a recent radio interview. Cases in Metro Manila, now the center of a new surge, can top 6,000 daily by end-March, and 14,000 by mid-April, he said. These projections are based on current reproduction rates.
We have not dealt with such numbers in the past, and our ability to do so remains questionable at best.
UP-OCTA is thus suggesting a two-week hard lockdown, similar to what happened in August 2020, to coincide with the observance of Holy Week, which starts on March 28.
UP-OCTA’s Professor Guido David of UP told a television interview that this would be a drastic “one-time, big-time” measure, but that it was necessary given the surge in COVID-19 cases particularly in Metro Manila. “We never saw this rate of increase in Metro Manila throughout the entire pandemic period,” he said.
His fellow UP-OCTA member, Professor Ranjit Rye of UP, noted that the situation was “dire,” adding, “It is going up, and we don’t see it going down with what we have now.”
He also noted that the country could not “fight this surge within the framework of a GCQ (general community quarantine). Some of the loosening of restrictions will have to be rolled back.”
There is no doubt in my mind that the current surge, as noted by OCTA, is variant-driven. And while I am opposed to reimposingenhanced community quarantine (ECQ), given its dire implications on lives and the economy, I don’t think we have a choice. But, to wait for Holy Week may be too late. March 22 to April 5 may be the more appropriate period for it. As Professor Rye noted, “We have to do something more than just compliance with minimum health standards.”
In my opinion, the 15-day ECQ will have to cover the Metro Manila area and nearby provinces like Cavite, Laguna, Rizal, and Bulacan. While local ECQs now in place can work, a more comprehensive and coordinated approach involving the greater region may be more effective. Flexibility in rules, however, should be considered in the production and transportation of food.
A year into community quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic and we are practically back where we started in March 2020. With a twist, of course. Prospects are now worse, with new daily peaks foreseen in the coming weeks. And I fear that what Metro Manila mayors have planned so far — banning minors from leaving their homes, new curfew hours, liquor bans, and localized ECQs — may not be enough.
My immediate family has chosen to again interrupt our lives until after Holy Week, as a way of dealing with the surge at the household level. We are lucky enough that we can actually go about our lives — work and school — from within the confines of our home. And while not many can do this, I strongly urge those who can to do the same. A personal choice to limit movement for two weeks — to self-quarantine — can go a long way in battling the surge.
The greater concern is for those who rely on their daily outings for their family’s sustenance. In the face of “no work-no pay,” keeping them in their homes for two weeks under a hard lockdown will be difficult. With national and local government resources already strained — and the private sector suffering from donor fatigue — little help can be expected for them this time around.
But unless a hard lockdown is put in place, to cover the greater region, it will be difficult to continue going after quarantine violators and to strictly enforce minimum health standards in all parts of the metropolis. Even increased police deployment will have little effect on people already suffering from quarantine fatigue and hard pressed to earn a living.
In lieu of a 15-day “Holy Week” ECQ for Metro Manila and nearby provinces, I will go for the suggestion of a coalition of healthcare professionals for private firms and local governments to further stagger working hours and to increase support for work-from-home arrangements. This is in light of findings that viral spread is occurring in congested workplaces and public transportation.
The Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC), a coalition of more than 160 medical societies, told a press briefing that businesses and local governments can still improve the situation in workplaces and communities. They suggested more bike lanes; more open spaces for business and leisure activities; and, discouraging dining in enclosed spaces.
They also noted the urgent need to avoid congestion inside workplaces and public utility vehicles. The group said a longer curfew — 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. — just limits the number of work and travel hours for workers, thus unnecessarily packing them in work areas and public transportation during work and commuting hours.
“Lockdown is still an option if we reach the point that the healthcare system is really overwhelmed beyond its capacity to effectively address the COVID-19 cases. But at this point, we feel that there is still something we can do to mitigate the surge,” HPAAC’s Dr. Aileen Espina told the press briefing in Filipino.
A workers’ group also noted the longer curfew was a burden to workers amid the obvious shortage in mass transportation. To an extent, I see the point in this. More public transportation options will help decongest the limited number of PUVs on the roads. At the same time, couple this with staggered working hours and work-from-home arrangements, then perhaps there will be a better dispersal of workers and less congestion in PUVs and offices during the work day.
More PUVs on the road will also help employers better manage resources as they forego more expensive private shuttles for their workers. Of course, it goes without saying that disinfection and distancing will have to be strictly enforced in all PUV modes.
Otherwise, more PUVs will just mean more ways for the virus to travel.
Managing the “surge” will be a tough balancing act for the government. Not even the most efficient vaccination program can beat COVID-19’s present reproduction rate. And, only time will tell if OCTA projections — 20,000 cases daily by mid-April — will happen.
Amid all these uncertainties, the only thing sure is that “surge” will take its toll on the economy.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council