In this storm, some boats are sinking

Published May 8, 2020, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin


Diwa C. Guinigundo
Diwa C. Guinigundo

In this period of COVID-19 and extended community quarantines, a cartoon depicting a dichotomous society is viral on social media. The cartoon shows half of society residing in crowded slums with the other half, locked-down in gated estates complete with swimming pools.

It sends an undeniable message.

There are privileged folk with the space and resources to comfortably isolate themselves. They do lockdowns and social distancing better. With running water, they can easily practice personal hygiene. While worry creeps into consciousness, mental wellness is better protected in these areas with more activities like baking, exercising, and watching Netflix to serve as distractions.

This is not feasible among the urban poor.

Indeed, while we are in the same storm, we are not ensconced in the same boats. This point was discerned by the wife of Richard Haddad, editor of Prescott News Network.

As the dichotomy suggests, boats do vary. There are big, sturdy boats but there are also small, dilapidated, leaky boats. Indeed, inequality has been a challenge for the Philippines for decades. But this pandemic has highlighted it. There are even nuances as the middle class decries unfair distribution of social amelioration.

No doubt, this viral pandemic has exposed health inequalities in advanced and emerging markets alike. “Health is wealth” is no longer a cliché. It is a now a mirror of reality. The reason is that health conditions are a magnified extension of both income and wealth inequalities.

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate, and author of the new book “People, Power, and Profits” argues that health inequalities result from a society’s failure to consider health care access as a basic human right.

Thankfully, our own state health insurance system covers COVID-19 patients. PhilHealth has issued guidelines on “case-based payment of benefits.” Patients confined as probable or confirmed cases can avail of packages as follows: ₱43,997 package for patients with mild pneumonia confined in Level 1 to 3 hospitals; ₱143,267 package for those with moderate pneumonia in Level 1 to 3 hospitals; ₱333,519 package for patients with severe pneumonia confined in Level 2 to 3 hospitals, including ICUs; and ₱786,384 package for patients with critical pneumonia confined in Level 2 to 3 hospitals, including ICUs. These packages are inclusive of the rates for a private hospital room, management and monitoring of illness, laboratory and other related medical expenses.

Most important, the Universal Health Care Law provides that all Filipinos are automatically PhilHealth members, immediately eligible to avail of the basic benefits.

Nonetheless, the pandemic has laid bare the vulnerability of the poor who live on daily wages. More susceptible to violate quarantine, in search of work and food, the urban poor have become restless. Their fear of dying from hunger often trumps their fear of catching the virus. There are also anecdotes on increased domestic violence and depression. Their living conditions in blistering Philippine summer make their quarantine unbearable.

Inequality and the pandemic have also worsened the unevenness in access to education. The virus has compelled the educational system to go on-line. This requires every student to have a computer and access to reliable Internet connection. The duopoly that has long plagued the telecom industry has condemned internet services to a primitive and unstable state that Jack Ma once described as “bad.” With no choice but to access the internet outside their homes to complete online classes and examinations, numerous students would be unduly exposed to the virus, exposing their families as well.

The pandemic also threatens globalization — much to populists’ delight. According to Stiglitz, the virus has exposed that global supply chains are not resilient because of non-diversification. Today, the name of the game is self-containment. Nations that have long relied on oil or rice made available in global markets for such commodities, are now in perilous condition. Stiglitz darkly warns that in the new normal, “our standards of living are going to fall.”
Some people say that a good crisis should never be wasted. The lessons of a crisis can be maximized regardless of its stage.

But the hard lessons of this crisis will be wasted if in the new normal, some segments of the population remain outside the perimeter of the healthcare system. Lessons will be wasted if science is not appreciated and given its proper space in public policy. After all, it was science that propelled nations to higher standards of living, relatively free from sickness and disease, until lately. To Stiglitz, science is the foundation of the wealth of nations. And it is science — God permitting — that will help us against this pandemic.

In the meantime, we continue to face a storm. While some are safe in lifeboats, still others are sinking and drowning.
Haddad’s recall of the Titanic tragedy is a lesson in itself. Out of 2,227 passengers, only 712 survived even if the lifeboats were enough to save 1,200 people. The number of lifeboats was actually limited by the owners of the Titanic to prioritize good optics.

To make matters worse, people didn’t make room for others in the already scarce lifeboats. One lifeboat which could accommodate 65 passengers, only had 28 people in it. Another had only 12 people. Hundreds were left to drown in freezing waters.

In contrast, as we weather this pandemic, we count on empathy to fill in the gaps in decrepit vessels. We rely on empathy to buoy us to safety.

Indeed, empathy will help minimize the transmission of COVID-19. We are beginning to see communities becoming more mindful of the benefits of personal hygiene and social distancing. Without any advisory from their local governments, many barangays initiated localized lockdowns. In these barangays, signs of the virus were checked. Ingress and egress were then carefully calibrated with everyone accounted for. There is more cooperation. Each person is aware of the high cost of an outbreak.

Empathy has also extended the immediate capacities of public and private hospitals. Private individuals and companies braved the eerie silence of empty streets and the threat of infection. They came forward to donate medical supplies, disinfectants, protective gear, and food for frontliners. Big corporates switched production from alcoholic drinks to alcohol and disinfectants. These were donated to the health sector. Individuals, families, university fraternities — like my own UP’s Alpha Sigma fraternity — and NGOs and other private corporations all levelled-up and donated masks and PPEs and packed meals to the frontliners. Some donated ventilators and testing kits.

Extraordinary empathy has been displayed by those who have waived social amelioration and relief goods so that those more needy could benefit. Empathy has even assuaged the patience of many as they await assistance from the DSWD, DILG, and some local government units. Empathy has driven many churches with their benevolent funds, and NGOs with their CSR commitments, to distribute cash to the needy as early as the onset of the Luzon-wide ECQ. These hand-outs have mitigated the financial handicaps of those unable to make a living because of the lockdown.

As we navigate the turbulent waters of COVID-19, it is empathy in public policy and in private actions that will help save boats that are sinking.