By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY
The 30-day lockdown of Luzon is about to end, but all indicators point to its extension. Among public health experts, scientists, and policy makers, the debate is over how long such an extension would last. A senior government official hinted at another 15 to 20 days, while the experts propose a much longer period of one to two months to “flatten the curve.” Meanwhile, business leaders and economists are calling for the lifting of the lockdown on April 14 — as originally scheduled — to mitigate the adverse impact on livelihood, industries, and the economy. Instead of a Luzon-wide or Metro Manila-wide lockdown, they propose barangay-level lockdowns, strict physical distancing rules, regular disinfection of public vehicles, and the continued quarantine of the elderly and those with weak immune systems.
It is not clear at this point where government would lean on the issue. But what is clear is that after three weeks, management of the crisis brought about by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 disease remains meandering and rudderless.
By now we know that early detection and response is crucial in stopping the virus from infecting a large segment of the population. But senior officials totally missed the opportunity. They have been trying to catch up with a fast-spreading virus ever since.
Senators have decried the absence of a definitive response plan from the government even after Congress approved the executive’s request for emergency powers. Priority programs enumerated in the first report to the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee — a requirement in the law — are not supported by an action plan. It did not provide a progress report on government’s efforts to fight the virus, and what it intends to do in the coming weeks.
In short, government asked for emergency powers but had no idea how to proceed. The impression it leaves is that the fight against COVID-19 is still a work-in-progress. And there is reason why many are inclined to believe this.
Take for example the transporting of food and other basic needs. Traders have complained of bottlenecks at checkpoints and the erratic implementation of guidelines at each checkpoint. These issues persist even as government officials keep saying that the movement of essential goods should be unimpeded. No one, it seems, has seen the urgency and necessity of directly informing those who man the checkpoints. In some checkpoints, traders complain that barangay officials require those delivering the cargo to undergo a 14-day quarantine. Because of the delays, the prices of basic goods have skyrocketed. This has made the lockdown unbearable and a source of anxiety for many, especially those without the means to hoard goods from the supermarkets.
As with other aspects of the lockdown, it appears that the policy of setting up checkpoints was announced and ordered implemented even without a clear action plan. All the confusion and the resulting constriction of Metro Manila’s food supply would have been avoided had the policy been discussed thoroughly before it was announced. A detailed plan should have been drafted and communicated in advance to all enforcement agencies. Spot inspections should have been done to monitor compliance on the part of the enforcers. This would have left no room for misinterpretation or discretion.
Amid all the confusion and anxiety are persistent reports of human rights violations. Human Rights Watch has documented cases of mass arrests of individuals, mostly from poor communities, for violating curfew and other lockdown rules. As we have pointed out in our previous column, some of them have been subjected to inhumane treatment like being locked up in a dog cage or being made to sit or squat under the blazing heat. Just last week, urban poor residents asking for food rations were violently dispersed. Several were arrested. Subpoenas were issued by the National Bureau of Investigation against several individuals for alleged violations of the emergency powers law. A prominent human rights lawyer extending legal help has been singled out during a nationally-televised tirade.
Some observers point out that televised addresses to the nation should be used as opportunities to clarify issues, direct government agencies, and assure the public. Each televised address, however, has had the opposite effect.
It is said that a crisis reveals the true character of individuals. It also exposes the competence, compassion, and management skills — or the complete lack of it — of public officials. Some of these officials have been weighed, and found terribly wanting.