By Argie C. Aguja
Senior Features Writer, The Philippine STAR

As most parts of the Philippines emerge from harsh lockdowns, other Asian neighbors are feeling the pinch of resurging COVID-19 cases after easing up on restrictions

When Malacañang announced the enforcement of a “modified” enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) over the entire National Capital Region (NCR), Laguna and Cebu City on May 12, the lockdown status in these high-risk areas remained firmly in place. Eight regions identified as moderate-risk areas are in a more relaxed general community quarantine (GCQ), while low-risk regions are under “modified” GCQ, where jobs and businesses return, provided that minimum public health standards are observed.

These quarantine levels will be enforced from May 16 to 31, and are subject to change as the government carefully plots and monitors the trends in coronavirus cases.

As of May 14, the Department of Health (DoH) records a total of 11,876 COVID-19 cases, with 2,337 recoveries and 790 deaths. There could have been more. While the DoH ramps up the number of tests by the day, the country is gradually getting an overall picture of the scope and reach of the coronavirus pandemic locally.

But lockdowns can’t last forever. In Asia, several countries first hit by the coronavirus were also the first ones to take steps to bring their respective societies back to life. But before long, there was an increase in cases as soon as lockdowns were lifted.

In some cases, governments have had to revert to restrictions and containment measures to engage a resurging coronavirus.

Lessons from other countries

The city state of Singapore was once a model for coronavirus response. From end of January to late March, Singapore registered 509 cases and two deaths. It had done so without the need for a lockdown — just a combination of targeted isolation, rigorous information campaigns and moderate social distancing.

Yet, an outbreak among low-paid migrant workers living in dormitories caused the number of cases to reach 26,098, as of May 14.

Authorities converted more than two dozen dormitories into mandatory isolation areas, ramped up testing and migrant support efforts, and provided free health care for infected individuals. The city state’s small size, assertive government response and strong health-care system are its best weapons in fighting the contagion.

South Korea was among the first countries outside China to report coronavirus cases. It managed to keep numbers low without a lockdown, thanks to rapid uptick of testing capacity, aggressive contact tracing and isolation of positive cases and closure of schools and workplaces.

Days passed without a single new case and most businesses reopened but after a six-day national holiday by the end of April, a new cluster of more than 100 infections were reported, tracing back to the entertainment district of Itaewon.

Businesses were ordered to close again while 8,000 policemen were deployed to aid contact tracing teams in locating people who were in the area. As of May 14, there are 10,991 COVID-19 cases in South Korea.

In Japan, the bulk of coronavirus cases was recorded in the island of Hokkaido back in February, prompting authorities to issue a state of emergency.

Schools and businesses were immediately closed, large gatherings were banned and people were advised to stay indoors. After new cases significantly went down, Hokkaido lifted the state of emergency.

Three weeks after the first lockdown was lifted, a second wave of infections pushed a record number of new cases. A second state of emergency was announced and Hokkaido was forced back into lockdown on April 14.

By May, new cases dropped sharply and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the lifting of a state of emergency in 39 out of 47 prefectures before it was due to expire. Japan has 16,103 confirmed coronavirus cases as of May 14.

WHO recommendations

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that any country seeking to lift restraints must first meet the following conditions: COVID-19 transmissions must be kept under control; healthcare systems must have the capacity to detect, test, trace and isolate cases; outbreak risks in high-vulnerable contexts must be minimized; schools and workplaces must have preventive measures in place; communities must be willing to make major changes; and must comply with the new rules while actively enforcing measures such as contact tracing and social distancing.

Until there is a proven vaccine or medicine, governments and societies are called on to continue vigilance in instituting various measures to protect public health and the economy from the devastating effects of a new wave of infections.