The Great Isolation

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Marvin A. Tort-125


Homeless people rest on makeshift beds in a Catholic school’s gymnasium which turned into a shelter for the homeless following the enforcement of a community quarantine in Luzon to contain the coronavirus disease, in Manila, March 31. -- REUTERS

First, there was the Great War, or the First World War, that ran from 1914 to 1918. Then, there was the Great Depression, or the worldwide economic recession that started in the United States in 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s. And prior to these, there was the Great Plague or the “Great Mortality” of 1347-1351, deemed the most devastating plague pandemic in history.

And now, we have the “Great Isolation” of 2020, a “lockdown” of billions of people around the world in an effort to “flatten the curve” and stem the rise of COVID-19 cases globally. And the impact, both positive and negative, of this “containment” effort will continue to affect all 7.8 billion people on our planet in the coming years.

There should be no big rush back to “business as usual.” It already seems that many of us will not be around to witness a return to some degree of “normal” by 2021 or 2022. We will survive this new “global terror,” that’s for sure. But there is no doubt in my mind that our planet and the people on it will never be the same after this pandemic. There is no going back to pre-2020.

Locally, we are now into our third week of the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine or ECQ. But for all intents and purposes, it is practically a national quarantine or a national lockdown. Some provinces and cities and towns in the Visayas and Mindanao have already implemented some form of quarantine or containment measure to quell the spread of COVID-19.

I do not expect the Luzon-wide ECQ to continue on, as it is, after the April 14 deadline. I am foreseeing modifications to the “lockdown” order. Worst case, particularly for Luzon, perhaps another two weeks of the same, or until end-April. In my opinion, that will be the ECQ limit. As it is, we are already fighting for national survival on two fronts: medical and economic.

At the individual level are the same two battle fronts. People grapple with avoiding or surviving the disease, and also surviving the quarantine. For some of us who are more fortunate to continue to have access to the necessities and the means to acquire them, then quarantine is manageable. Inconvenient, but tolerable. It is a matter of putting off things for later.

But to many others, it is a different story, especially when in their minds, they are desperately ready to risk disease just to avoid hunger. And this is where things can get dicey. And, I believe this is a major consideration for our leaders. Absolutely no one knows how and when this pandemic will end. But what is certain is that we will not go through it unscathed.

Quarantine measures may have to remain for areas with many cases, but the rest of Luzon should have some relief from ECQ. By this, I mean monitoring and isolation of people who are sick and those who have been in contact with the sick. Then, the widespread use of masks and the strict exercise of stringent hygiene measures. Forced quarantine for PUIs and isolation of PUMs. No foreign arrivals meantime.

As one associate noted, if, for instance, someone tests positive, then close the establishment and disinfect it. Then reopen it when feasible. Limit the disruption. Start contact tracing and then put PUMs and PUIs in isolation or quarantine. But, don’t prolong the suspension of operations via a general lockdown.

Also, give more support for medical services and health workers. It seems the Philippines is losing more doctors and health workers relative to the number of sick patients than other countries. Fact is, we will still need all if not more doctors and health workers after this Great Virus is over. Life will have to go on. And from birth to death, that thing most constant is medical service.

But allow businesses to operate, especially food production and services. Limit lockdowns to areas under strict quarantine, and only if absolutely necessary. Lockdowns should be very selective, moving forward. Allow public transportation to restart and remove restrictions on the movement of goods and people. But temporarily maintain restrictions on shopping malls, and other public places and gatherings. Schools may have to remain suspended.

I am sure none of this is lost on our leaders and decision makers. I am likewise certain they are monitoring practices in other countries that may be applicable to us. It is anticipated that the government will modify in particular checkpoint guidelines to allow the freer movement of food as well as agricultural and fishery products, perhaps even of farmers and factory workers involved in food production. This will necessarily entail some changes on guidelines for the transportation of goods and people.

Other than food, we need to restart manufacturing and exports. And, also services, whether B to B or B to C. By the end of the ECQ, many people will already need various forms of services, including financial, and access to consumer durables and other consumer goods. Retail will need to have some form of restart as well. The basic needs of people go beyond food.

A modified scheme may have to remain in place until June or July, and then maybe phased down again by the third quarter. It all depends on where we are by then in terms of limiting the spread of COVID-19. But physical distancing, wearing of masks, and strict hygiene measures will have to remain with us for the rest of the year, at least.

I dare put the period of “The Great Virus” at 2020-2024, and some respite for the Philippines perhaps by 2025. I also expect us to be back firmly on our feet by 2026, under a “new normal.” I have not lived through a world war, nor a global plague. I have no crystal ball, nor science nor mathematics, to back my claim. I cannot predict the future. All I have, at this point, is a gut feel of how and when this great crisis will end. God, for those of us who believe in Him, and Science will work together to save us from it.


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.