FASTLANES: UP OCTA’s proposal for ‘lockdowns’ ignores resiliency factors, anti-poor

CAGAYAN DE ORO (MindaNews / 12 October) — The recommendation of the University of the Philippines’ (UP) research group OCTA could be anti-poor.

They recommended the following areas where there is an observed increase of cases per 1,000 population to revert to tighter quarantine measures: Benguet (including Baguio City), Quezon, Pangasinan (including Dagupan), Iloilo (including Iloilo City), Misamis Oriental (including Cagayan de Oro City), South Cotabato, Surigao del Sur, Western Samar, and Zamboanga del Sur (including Zamboanga City).

What the UP researchers may not have considered are the timelines and real figures across the board. It may have also missed or refused to look at the nuances of responses in different areas, like the increased testing capacity, improved treatment and critical care capacities across the country — generally resilience interventions in the regions.

Disaggregation of the data would reveal the details, nuances and peculiarity in every region, province and highly urbanized cities. How the cases started to deescalate is because of a host of interventions, not solely attributable to tighter quarantine measures. In fact, the data suggests that quarantine measures alone did not result in the curving of cases.

Remember that in March, the strict quarantine was justified to prevent runaway cases of around 75,000. Also worthy of revisiting is the primary objective of quarantine measures — to prepare the health system from getting overwhelmed by the pervasive virus.

While true that the COVID-19 cases steadily increased, with some of the highest daily increases in August and early September, at these times, the figures in most regions, like in Mindanao, to some extent Western Visayas, have remained comparatively low, except perhaps for Davao and Zamboanga cities.

Due to some drivers like the Balik Probinsya program, figures in the regions increased dramatically, mainly due to returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs) and locally-stranded individuals (LSIs). This has been arrested by increased community isolation units, increased testing capacities and increased critical care services. As can be gleaned from the data, the spike in cases in areas outside Metro Manila, Metro Cebu and Metro Davao have been observed to start in July, peaked in August and started tapering later in September.

But even then, regions like Northern Mindanao and SOCCSKSARGEN (in street parlance) “naa nay na bangko.” During the GCQ and ECQ periods they were able to put a cap on cases while the local governments invested in testing capacity, isolation and critical care, along with formulation of policies on non-pharmaceutical interventions like mandatory wearing of face masks, face shields, good hygiene and social distancing, that even if there were significant increases, the critical care utilization rate in these regions remained comfortably in the safe zone.

And even judging from the supposed spike, the figures in these regions now are still relatively low compared to the time when the likes of Metro Manila and Cebu were thrown into hard quarantines or lockdowns not once, but twice.

As of Oct. 8, 2020, from lowest CCUR (average usage of ICU beds, Isolation beds and mechanical ventilators): 1. Northern Mindanao/ R-X 24.31%; 2. Western Mindanao/ R-IX 29.48%; 3. Central Mindanao/ R-XII 32.93%; Southern Mindanao/ RXI 54.24; and Caraga 56.95%. (Source: DOH Covid 19 Tracker)

(Caraga has lower cases, but its CCUR is higher compared to other regions, but that is for separate analysis.)

Now that the economy has to be restarted as the long hard quarantines only razed the economy to a recession, Cagayan de Oro and generally Northern Mindanao have kept the numbers low. As the 4th emerging metropolitan city in the country after Metro Cebu and Metro Davao, Cagayan de Oro’s numbers had just breached four digits when others are already racking up four and five digit figures.

Cases in top 10 highly urbanized cities  as of 08 Oct. 2020 (lowest to highest): 1. General Santos 456; 2. Cagayan de Oro 984; 3. Baguio 1,246; 4. Zamboanga 1,896; 5. Davao 2,160; 6. Lapu-Lapu 2,385; 7. Mandaue 2,480; 8. Iloilo 2,935; 9. Bacolod 4,266 and 10. Cebu 10,061.

While the numbers have jumped to over thousand as of this writing, the active cases in Cagayan de Oro have been hovering around 300 day-in and day-out, with around 20 needing ICU services. Recovery rate of 62% is good.

The people of Cagayan de Oro, generally of Northern Mindanao, General Santos and SOCCSKSARGEN should be grateful and not be so hard on themselves, but should also never put their guards down.

It would have been better had the UP OCTA also looked at externalities like who pays for the social cost in its recommendation of more stringent quarantine measures.

Hard quarantine or lockdowns pushes the payment of the cost to the people. Even if government subsidizes food and other basic needs, the strain it is causing on public revenues need not be spelled out anymore. And these subsidies are never enough. This results in people getting less nutrition and experience actual hunger, as shown in the latest SWS survey, due to lost income and opportunities. These and other impacts are far-reaching and lingering.

As in any disaster, resilience is a very vital factor. Investments in testing capacities, isolation centers and critical care proved to be major resiliency factors. Measures that could be sustained in tandem with the policies effecting non-pharmaceutical interventions.

The fight is far from over. Let us not, however, repeat the mistake of having the world’s longest hard quarantine that resulted in rapid upward trend in cases and a very bad economy.

How some regions, as stated, kept their figures low when the hard quarantines were implemented may need a serious look. Rather than staring at faceless figures, it is important to consider the real-life struggles of local governments, medical and non-medical frontliners, the general populace —  to learn at how they gave the virus a good fight.

(P.S. I would agree with the UP OCTA recommendation if the critical care utilization rate in the areas they recommended tighter quarantine measures reach the danger zone.)

(BenCyrus G. Ellorin is a former journalist. He is now the chairperson of the advocacy group and think tank Pinoy Aksyon for Governance and the Environment / Pinoy Aksyon. FB: @NoypiAksyon; Twitter: @PAksyon)