OF SUBSTANCE AND SPIRIT
By DIWA C. GUINIGUNDO
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Living to Tell the Tale” suggests that life is not what one has lived. Life is what one remembers.
Committing to memory and print what our nation is going through during this pandemic will shape our manner of remembrance.
Years from now, hopefully we should benefit from our reckoning.
Where it all began
Recriminations between China and the US supported by actual timeline reports and health statistics point to Wuhan in China’s Hubei province as the source of the virus. Animal to human transmission began either in a public market trading exotic meat or in a laboratory.
China’s lack of transparency and delay in reporting the highly infectious new pathogen in late December, 2019, was extremely costly. Prompt reporting would have allowed early development of the reagent. But as The Sunday Times reports, tests were instead stopped, samples were destroyed, and news suppressed. These acts must be related to a 17 November 2019 confirmed case based on a South China Morning Post report. There were also some early unexplained cases of pneumonia-like symptoms of travelers from Wuhan to Hong Kong and Singapore.
How it played out in the Philippines
From the beginning, we were less forthright about the weak health care system in the Philippines. The President declared, “Hindi magtatagal yan.” We missed the opportunity to arrest the virus early.
A proactive testing guidelines and a quick lockdown would have frozen the dynamics of infection. Our health authorities would have had more time to increase our capacity to mass-test for the virus, establish protocols for contact tracing, and strengthen logistical support for mitigation purposes. Proper advisories to the general public to counter fake news and guide appropriate public response to calls for a home quarantine and prompt testing if symptomatic could have been made.
Late in the game, the government was left with no choice but to escalate the level of caution from one of monitoring, to a “community quarantine,” to an “enhanced community quarantine,” to an “extreme enhanced community quarantine,” to an outright lockdown in Luzon — exercises on the use of descriptive words and a taxonomy of the absurd.
As a result, we now struggle to cope with mounting cases of infection and death. Our frontline healthcare personnel and workers are in constant danger. Some have lost their lives to the fight, leaving us bereft and deeply mourning their loss. Many more risk the same fate unless the government quickly overhauls its approach to virus control. Can’t urgent pleas by public hospitals for masks and PPE donations shake government to its core?
Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explained why we should be good stewards of scarce health resources: “…If you don’t show symptoms, self-monitor. Self-isolate if you feel you’ve been exposed or if you are told to. But there’s no need to get tested, until you’re starting to show symptoms.” Despite his own wife testing positive for the virus, Trudeau did not get himself tested.
We cannot overemphasize that we have a very limited number of test kits. Many of these have been donated by friendly countries, some are to be launched by the UP.
Our asymptomatic public servants are expected to give way to symptomatic patients and to our health heroes exposed to the virus. We commend Dr Celia Carlos for her courage in correctly prioritizing the deployment of the test kits. We hope the news that she was relieved of her duties as head of RITM, because of her steadfastness, is fake news.
South Korea is a different case. According to their articulate foreign secretary, their IT infrastructure and values allowed them to sustain their vibrant democracy and free trade with other countries without a lockdown. They have an excellent health care system with testing covering 20,000 persons per day. Even their system of contact tracing is well developed and mitigation is readily available in their health facilities.
Without the same advantages of South Korea, early lockdown is indispensable. The Philippines did not have both.
The writing on the wall
Today, we are faced with the enormous problem of containing a monster of a pathogen. There are risks of a global catastrophe of widespread malaise, economic recession, social displacement, and political backlash.
Indeed, global economic recession is a costly collateral consequence.
But this time, it is different. It threatens to be worse.
The difference from previous recessions is that nobody could project the depth and the duration of today’s catastrophe. The adversary is unseen. It is still busy around the world devastating people’s lives, business plans, and hopes. The world is in uncharted territory.
The US economy, the biggest in the world, is expected to show a big decline in both the first and second quarters of as much as 12 percent in the current quarter. Some believe it could even top 24 percent because there is business shutdown. Neither the Great Depression nor the Global Financial Crisis forced cities and nations to a lockdown. Time might be frozen for many businesses. Credit Suisse predicts that “economic data in the near future will not just be bad but unrecognizable.” Far from a being a blip, Oxford Economics suggests that we are seeing today something “we’ve never experienced….”
Bloomberg reported that the US Treasury is looking at an unemployment rate ranging from 10 to 20 percent. This is the reason the US’ federal stimulus runs into trillions of dollars. The editors of New York Times are proposing that to be able to avoid complete economic destruction, the public sector should compensate business with the money they could not earn during this trying period. The idea is to maintain the companies’ productive capacity and the workers’ welfare.
With interest rates close to zero, unconventional monetary policy has been deployed in advanced economies especially in the US where intervention in the corporate bond market is being contemplated. New financing for consumers, employers and businesses could amount to some $300 billion.
Our assessment is that in the Philippines, what is most urgent is a dedicated program to both contain the further spread of the virus, and to manage those already affected. The executive authority to realign up to P275 billion in available funds should go a long way. This is very fundamental. It should be the centerpiece of public policy.
The forced lockdown prevents businesses from resuming operations and employing workers. If the pathogen is neutralized, then some economic activity could be motivated.
The second order of the day is to cushion dislocation of workers and employers alike. In previous columns, we suggested government provision of funds — one, subsidies to businesses to keep them running and two, payment of workers’ wages. Higher cash transfers can be a good mitigant especially to those in the bottom 30 percent of the population. It is impossible for daily wage earners and street vendors to make a living in this time of the virus.
Expansionary fiscal policy can be sustained with a twist. Budget realignment can be done in favor of higher spending for strengthening the infrastructure of health care. Both Congress and the Palace should provide greater specificity to higher spending, with safeguards that additional funding really goes to health and social protection.
The challenge for the Philippines transcends the output target of 6.5 to 7.5 percent. If we prevail over this viral scourge, stabilize and finally reduce the rate of infection; protect society, keep businesses afloat and the jobs of workers, a 1-2 percentage points less of economic growth should be a blessing.
That is an important bookmark when we do the remembering.