THE LEGAL FRONT
Justice Art D. Brion (ret.)
At this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, who are the winners and the losers from within our ranks in our battle for the health and welfare of the nation?
A knee-jerk reply for some is to cast a critical glance at the Department of Health (DOH) – our primary health agency – and to classify it as a loser. They would point out that the DOH had known of the existence of COVID-19 as early as December, 2019, with a first fatality on February 1, 2020, yet the DOH failed to take any meaningful action to prepare us for this disease.
They would add that a month-long lockdown and the suspension of classes was only declared on March 12. Until now, on COVID-19’s 5th month, we really do not know yet the actual COVID-19 infection level in Metro Manila due to lack of testing kits and sufficient testing centers.
I hesitate to join this assessment because COVID-19 was a new and largely unknown virus when it first struck. The DOH apparently could not have plans, ready and specific to COVID-19, as it came as a surprise to everyone. Even the WHO – the UN global health expert – declared COVID-19 a Global Health Emergency only on February 1, 2020, and called it a pandemic only on March 11. 2020.
Despite its lack of immediate and effective response, I would give the DOH proper recognition for its untiring and unrelenting efforts since COVID-19 struck. Its efforts have now gathered inertia, and are now a work-in-progress, resulting in relatively controlled COVID-19 levels in the country so far. I would thus reserve judgment on the DOH until we can undertake a more meaningful assessment.
The big winners we can already recognize are our medical frontliners who – despite the dearth of protective personal equipment and our general lack of preparedness – have unselfishly and bravely attended to their patients. Twenty-seven of them (21 doctors and six nurses) have died. They are our super-heroes in the fight against COVID-19.
Winners as well are the hospitals and health care facilities that have unselfishly opened their doors and given preferential attention to COVID-19 cases, at great health and economic risks. They also belong to the winners column.
We must not also forget our private sector volunteers. They are the people who contributed, gathered or distributed money, goods, equipment, and needed materials to supply the deficiencies in our medical frontliners’ needs. Many times, they even placed their own health at risk in their distribution efforts.
More importantly for the nation perhaps, they drew out the spirit of community and cooperation that has lain hidden and dormant in many of us. When the emergency arose, these volunteers did not need to be called; they stepped forward on their own to be counted. They likewise cannot but be winners and heroes.
Outside the immediate health care scene are our peace and order heroes – the police, the military, and the barangay officials who saw to the effective enforcement of the government’s quarantine, social distancing, and masking directives. They should also earn acclaim from an appreciative community.
Enforcement is never easy against people facing their own immediate personal woes; it can even be hazardous when our lawmen encounter physical resistance, as happened recently. They then run the risk of being condemned by a partisan media or haled to court. Even President Duterte suffered negative publicity for advising our lawmen to use force, if necessary, to defend their lives.
Some people have met quarantine without worry about their next meal. They are the lucky few. Not as fortunate are the greater majority – the jobless poor and those who cannot afford to stop working because they do not earn when they do not work. They have been the hardest hit by COVID-19 and are the most vulnerable sector of our society. From their ranks come the quarantine violators who reason out that they will die anyway if they do not go out and work.
To their credit, our politicians have responded by promptly, albeit incompletely, acting on the COVID-19 challenges. The President and his advisers orchestrated the enforcement of measures addressing the medical situation. He also recommended, and Congress passed, legislation addressing the needs of the poor and the problem of hunger under quarantine situation. These quick responses earned them positive recognition from an appreciative nation.
The implementation of the government’s economic assistance package, however, did not receive universal acclaim from its intended recipients. While some local government units (LGUs) have been prompt and efficient, others were not, thus meriting complaints. The people, I am sure, will not forget how their LGUs functioned, and shall accordingly judge them as winners or losers come election time.
The glow on politicians also paled when they were given priority COVID-19 testing, despite the paucity of testing kits and ahead of the suspected infected cases. One senator was even singled out for brazenly failing to observe social distancing despite his positive COVID-19 test result; he mindlessly mingled with hospital personnel while attending to his pregnant wife. These insensitivities mark them all as losers.
Education is a seldom mentioned victim of the COVID-19 lockdown. Classes in Metro Manila were immediately suspended when lockdown was declared, although some schools continued classes using computer meeting programs. Eventually some schools opted to terminate the semester and simply gave their students passing grades irrespective of their actual class standing.
In terms of the half-semester of lost classes, education was a definite loser, but even this loss carried an upside – the suspension of classes compelled some schools to improvise and to use virtual classrooms via the Internet. Everybody now looks forward to this teaching mode which may yet be the wave of the future in education. COVID-19 may thus have unwittingly served as catalyst in speeding up changes in our educational system.
Separately from its medical aspects are COVID-19’s economic effects. A feared consequence for the nation is an economic recession triggered by the COVID-19 lockdown. The inactivity could result in the depletion of the nation’s coffers and business stagnation prejudicial to everybody, particularly to the poor; we may yet face a period of economic hardship and belt tightening.
But we can still have winners and heroes even in these situations. Even now, the employer assistance accorded to workers and employees during the lockdown should be lauded. These employers and businesses are volunteers and contributors, no less, to the efforts to vanquish Covid-19.
Let’s all pray for victory over COVID-19 and for everyone – winners and losers – in our ongoing battle.