“All models are wrong, but some are useful,” declared the statistician George Box.
Forty-nine days under quarantine, and authorities remain in a quandary on the best way to address the myriad of issues created by the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019): how do we contain the spread of the virus? Is social/ physical distancing producing the intended effect of “flattening the curve”? What is the best way to help the most vulnerable groups during the lockdown? Can the health system manage the influx of patients? How do we balance the need of the economy and the need to continue with the social-physical distancing? Will there be a second wave of infection after we lift the lockdown? There are no guaranteed answers to these questions. At best, what we have are projections based on mathematical models. The problem, however, is that if data is insufficient and/or inaccurate, mathematical models will be unable to churn out useful guesstimates.
What is clear during this entire period of quarantine is that everyone is afraid. We are all fearful of a threat that is unseen and undefeated. In the absence of a vaccine, everyone is vulnerable to getting infected. Thus, the biggest challenge to people in authority is, how do you run a state under threat of pandemic. How do you manage the affairs of the country if the threat is unseen, and a solution is still not available? In a state of conflict or war, the enemy is identified, and strategies can be devised to defeat the opposing force and protect the population. The current situation, however, is far more challenging since the carriers of the threat are the very same people that the state is supposed to protect.
When an entire population is afraid, those in authority are expected to manage fear — they are expected to lead and appease people’s anxiousness, and prevent fear from escalating into an “artificially heightened apprehension” (Robert Higgs, 2005) and spiral into chaos.
Regulatory systems are put in place. We’ve seen this early on when the government imposed the community quarantine, closed the airports, suspended commercial operations, suspended work, and regulated the mobility of people through the social/physical distancing. The goal is to stop the spread of the virus and give the health care system breathing space by spacing the number of affected persons over time. While the goal is noble, the regulations have consequences.
Intentionally or not, the government has reinforced and reproduced fear. By mobilizing the police and the military to manage the regulatory measures, the government has reframed the pandemic from being a health catastrophe to become an “enemy-centered problem” that needs to be defeated. The government has “securitized” the problem. Binaries are created — between the infected and the not-infected people; between government forces and the population; between the “ECQ” (enhanced community quarantine) areas and the “GCQ” (general community quarantine) areas; between those who follow the dictates of the government and those who criticize government actions. The discursive space where collective assessment and action is shrinking by the day. Submission to government imposition is now being equated with being nationalistic and criticizing government is being labelled as being unpatriotic.
The enemy-centered thinking is reflected in the terminology used: “persons under monitoring (PUM),” “persons under investigation (PUI),” “suspect case,” “probable case” are terms reminiscent of police investigations. The enemy-centered thinking is also reflected on how government responds to the problem — the checkpoints, quarantine and lockdowns, the very stringent interpretation of some police and Barangay officials regarding the use of face masks, and recently, the (narrow) interpretation of some officials that individual rights are trumped by collective welfare. The government is falling into the trap of resorting more on punitive action due to its fear of the uncertain. Intentionally or not, fear is being leveraged by those in authority. The government has emphasized the vulnerability of people instead of capitalizing on the collective capacity of citizens to address the problem. The government presents itself as the protector against the invisible enemy instead of enabling citizens and communities to address the problem.
But the basic motives of the leaders and the governed are different. If the government puts a premium on regulation and obedience, communities put a premium on their day-to-day existence. While the term “herd immunity” is often mentioned as a health terminology, people cannot be likened to a “herd” politically. No matter how much the government imposes rules, hungry people will find ways to move around if not totally discard the rules.
In other words, there is also a “peak” or a breaking point of how much people can tolerate and follow the strict regulation imposed by the state. Fear of the uncertain (virus) will be replaced by fear of hunger when supplies begin to dry up. When hunger growls stronger than the fear of COVID-19 virus, such a situation can begin to turn ugly. And we are already seeing the beginning of such situations: as of April 21, the PNP has reported 136,517 ECQ violators (GMA News).
When an ECQ “violation” is interpreted differently by different localities, the possibility of abuse increases. So our already overcrowded jails will be over-burdened further with ECQ violators.
What then? Echoing what has been said before by colleagues, the government must present a clear plan to get us out of this situation. It must harness the collective capacity of its citizens rather than addressing the problem alone. One thing we have also realized in the current situation is that while people are afraid, there is also a well-spring of courage in each one that moves people to help, sometimes even at the risk of one’s safety. Rather than governing people’s fear, the government must manage fear and transform it into a positive force.
A clear and sound plan on health, economy, and security based on inputs, data, and even mathematical models must be formulated. And it must be done now.
Jennifer Santiago Oreta is the Director of the Ateneo Initiative on South East Asian Studies, and an Assistant Professor of the Department of Political Science of the Ateneo de Manila University. She is also the Executive Director of the civil society organization Human Security Advocates.