REFLECTIONS: The war on COVID-19

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BUTUAN CITY (MindaNews / 09 April) — It’s getting harder to comment on CQs (Community Quarantines) and, the harder version, ECQs (Enhanced Community Quarantines)  without fear of being attacked in social media. Earlier on FB I read people ranting against neighbors walking about, breathing fresh air or singing their favorite songs in their frontyards. Some have adopted a localized version of xenophobia suggesting that ‘outsiders’ of a barangay or city should get out. I am holed up in a city I was not born into. The sense of belonging due to work and friendships is being pounded by fear of being not accepted as an accidental resident.

Sun Tzu’s ‘ know your enemy and know yourself’ is a jewel in war strategy.

We agree that we are waging a war and the enemy is COVID-19.  The idea that this enemy is unseen has lingered. We know that the unseen is the biggest inducer of fear. Extreme fear can lead to irrational behavior and violence. This explains why some health workers have been harmed or denied entry to their own homes.

COVID-19 is not exactly unseen. It was — when it started as object of observation in Wuhan. But medical science has already established that it is a positively stranded RNA virus;  that it needs a host and that it can be transmitted. Most significant of all is the knowledge that it can die on its own (if there is no host) and it can be killed by a person’s anti-bodies.  People infected with the virus can survive. Indeed thousands have died but thousands have also resisted and survived. We expect that soon a vaccine will finally defeat it before it sheds more havoc.

We are on the “unseen” mode simply because we are still falling short of test kits, laboratories, hospital rooms and quarantine areas.  With the shortfall, everyone is automatically considered a suspect – a potential vector of the virus or a target of infection. True, the worst is yet to come but there might be better sequences to not only flatten the curve but also avoid throwing everyone to the cliff.

CQs and ECQs are contretemps that run against the grain of what is home and community.  The latter are not quarantine areas and they are not logical sites of social and physical distancing. Much more in affluent cities that have attracted multitudes of informal settlers and job seekers. There are no proper houses in urban slums. What you get are bed spaces in housing structures built by people who have no proof of ownership except rights claims that are most often contested by other claimants.

What we need are proper quarantine areas where the infected, PUIs (persons under investigation) and PUMs (persons under monitoring)  should be cared for.   We need home and community as defensive ramparts where intra-family and inter-family social networks strengthen bonds – not as quarantine areas. We do not need barangays that behave like states with borders and border guards.   We do not need neighborhoods where people raise eyebrows or run when they see someone coughing or sneezing. We need homes and communities that enable people to not abandon farms, backyard gardens and other productive and reproductive activities.

The President earlier said “ I have money.” Indeed there is a PHP 275 billion up for realignment by virtue of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. It’s people’s money that can be used for something meaningful and lasting and not just subsidies for the poor who are out of work or facing physical and other challenges.   There is a need to expand testing capacity, hospital care and quarantine areas before the money runs out. The fiscal capacity of government is only as good as the health of the economy that feeds it.

This is a war that has no fixed battle lines but it would be incorrect to assume that it can be contained by fencing off communities and think that the frontlines are checkpoints where frontliners are equipped with thermal guns. Bring the infected to proper quarantine areas and health care facilities and the PUIs and PUMs in appropriate locations. Let homes and communities function as they are rather than wait for home-delivered food packs and other subsidies.  Strong homes and communities can help reduce uncertainties and alleviate fear of economic collapse.

Let’s strengthen the known frontlines where the enemy is known – hospitals, clinics, quarantine areas – not military checkpoints and artificial borders of barangays and municipalities. Let’s build our defenses by strengthening homes and communities.  Let people work, produce and exchange. This is the only way we can avoid an economic collapse and this is the only way where fiscal resources of government do not run out of borrowed time. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Ed Quitoriano is an independent consultant who specializes in conflict and risks).

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