TURNING POINT: The Pandemic Lockdown Woes

NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews / 28 June) — The Philippines may yet hold the record of having imposed the longest lockdown in the whole COVID-19 pandemic world: already more than 100 days old and is still in place today in a variety of names and levels of restrictions in different areas of the archipelago.

To restart the economy, the authorities had lifted or eased some lockdown restrictions in some places; but many affected local government units refuse to heed the national declaration to protect their constituents from the deadly virus. So, as if nothing has changed.

Meanwhile, a hard or strict lockdown is imposed currently in Cebu City because the infection cases there have spiked upon the easing of lockdown restrictions. The residents are not allowed to get out of their houses. All local travel passes have been canceled. The visibility of the police and the military everywhere is increased to enforce the pandemic isolation measure.

The Philippines is also unique and unparalleled in tapping generals, ex-military men, to call the shots against the pandemic. The Inter-Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), the planning and policy board on the pandemic is headed by a general, a former AFP chief, who is also the chief implementer of the COVID-19 policy of the government. His deputy is another general.  There could be more generals in the group but not a single epidemiologist is on board. Only the DOH secretary is a medical doctor. The COVID-19 field commander in Cebu City is another General.

With the military in command, the lockdown has become the primary strategy, the military way, in combating the pandemic. Armed security forces of the state are all over town to see to it that civilians do not take side with the invisible enemy. But the fear approach does not seem to work, especially when hunger begins to stalk the hapless populace. Many would dare the virus and be rather caught and jailed by law enforcers than watch their loved ones agonize and die of hunger. After all, hunger is gravely perceptible and fearsome an enemy than the invisible virus.

Billions of pesos have been poured to the pandemic war efforts. Yet incoherent and flip-plopping implementation strategies waylaid the purpose. Such that three months after the approval of the Social Amelioration Program, many of the targeted poor families are yet to receive the financial help from that war chest, and are now reduced to begging in the street to survive and become lockdown violators in the process.

On the other hand, the distribution of cash aid is insane; it thoughtlessly defied lockdown and health protocols. People got out of their homes and crowded in open space under the elements from dawn to late in the evening. Many returned home empty-handed. A number died of heat stroke and heart attack in the process.

The lockdown, without, of course, the intention, discriminately favors the rich over the poor. With their money and transport, the rich can go easily to places to buy food, medicines and other needs and can ferry their sick to healthcare facilities. The poor either violate lockdown protocols or stay starved and dead at home.

The science-based approach in eliminating or preventing the rapid spread of the deadly virus is relegated to the background. Viral tests and contact tracing, for instance are at turtle pace. The acquisition of protective gears for health workers suffers from alleged corruption and inefficiency. Thus, the goal to flatten the curve has become elusive, and infection cases continue to spike precariously, necessitating an overtime extension of lockdown.

The shortcomings, notwithstanding, the figures of the pandemic war as of 4 p.m. on June 26  —  34,073 cases, 9,182 recoveries and 1,224 deaths (assuming these DOH data are accurate and true) are not at all that dismal reckoned from the 110 million population of the country, and when compared to the performance  of the US and Brazil.

But the country could have performed much better if it immediately banned travels from the outside, especially from mainland China upon the outbreak of the corona virus in Wuhan in late December 2019. But the leadership hubris downplayed the virus scare and stuck to its vassalage politics with China, refusing initially to ban travel from China allegedly because it was not fair to China.

Despite earlier calls to ban flights from Wuhan, where the virus spread was first reported, it did so only on January 23, following complaints that there were still flights from Wuhan to Boracay despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Wuhan and the rest of China.

President Duterte announced on January 30 that the government was banning travel from Hubei, the province where Wuhan is, a day after the first confirmed COVID-19 case was reported. And the lockdown was imposed only on March 15, when the number of cases was already 140, with 12 deaths.

In his last report to the nation on the Bayanihan program performance, Presdient Duterte urged everyone to stop the finger pointing because we are already here and doing so would not, accordingly, improve the situation.

Indeed. The right move is to rethink and correct the very flawed policy and strategy against the corona virus pandemic, considering the move to have a Bayanihan Act II.

For instance, if the lockdown is to continue it must be strictly imposed only in places where the infection is alarmingly high. It should be total no-movement-from-home policy for residents of the area. Of course, it is imperative for government to feed and attend to the basic needs of the affected populace efficiently and effectively. If this could not be done, it is better to just keep close to the health virus avoidance protocols, abandon the unenforceable isolation-lockdown policy, and simply wait for the herd immunity to develop in the people. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., is retired professor and former chancellor of Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental, Philippines)