Despite all the lockdowns and stringent measures already laid out, how come we have not flattened the curve of the coronavirus that continues to spread widely?
I dare say the fault lies in enforcement. And I say this based on my experience tackling the SARS epidemic in 2003 when I was head of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) which exerted tremendous efforts to ensure action plans were carried out by local government units especially at the barangay level.
At the onset of the SARS outbreak then, we enjoined all barangay governments to create and activate their Barangay Health Emergency Response Teams (BHERTs), in line with Section 16 or the General Welfare Clause of the Local Government Code which tasks LGUs to promote health and safety within their jurisdiction.
The strategy and programs to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic have been laid out since March 16 when the government thru Proclamation No. 929 declared a “State of Calamity throughout the Philippines due to coronavirus disease 2019.” It followed Proclamation No. 922 issued on March 8 which put under a “state of public health emergency” the entire country. The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) then issued the Omnibus Guidelines on the Implementation of Community Quarantine with amendments. The DILG issued memoranda that reactivated and reinforced the BHERTS.
I think the strategy and programs, including the IATF guidelines and DILG memoranda, are sensible, and even practical. There really is no need for a new strategy. What we urgently need is a more aggressive, focused, unified, coordinated, fast and monitored implementation of the strategy.
Non-stop education on the virus and how an individual can protect oneself and others – from hand washing, wearing of face mask, and social distancing – have to be ingrained in everyone’s consciousness until they become habits.
Then, the three Ts—Test, Trace, and Treat—must be pursued with extraordinary determination and with sufficient manpower, financing, equipment, and facilities.
At the national level, the DILG and Department of Health (DOH) are the two departments that must work in tandem to oversee that the strategy is fully implemented across the country, especially in hot spot regions and local governments.
The DILG, however, plays a more pivotal role because under the constitution and the Local Government Code of l99l, it has the duty to oversee the LGUs on the performance of their duties. It must ensure that health services which are devolved to local governments are carried out by provincial, city, municipal, and barangay governments within their respective territories.
The DOH, on the other hand, formulates the national strategy, in coordination with DILG, and other departments like the Departments of Labor and Employment, Transportation and Communication. This is done thru the IATF which was created in 2014 under Executive Order 168 “to establish preparedness and ensure efficient government response to assess, monitor, contain, control, and prevent the spread of any potential epidemic in the Philippines.”
But the barangay, the basic unit of government is where all the strategy, guidelines, programs, projects and activities converge. It has to organize its BHERT headed by an Executive Officer, barangay tanods and health workers. The more than 42,000 barangay all over the country must be in the forefront of identifying the symptomatic with Covid l9, isolating them in the barangay quarantine or area quarantine facilities, and having them tested and treated, and the ones they had in contact with traced and isolated also for l4 days.
But since the asymptomatic are more than the symptomatic, based on research, a mass testing program has to be done, especially in the hot spot areas, so that carriers of the virus who are asymptomatic are also isolated, and their contacts also traced and isolated.
The barangay governments, which are under the direct supervision of the city or municipal governments, however, need the assistance of the higher level of government up to the national level. Th provincial, municipal and city governments, with their respective health officers and personnel must coordinate the efforts of the BHERTS. Policemen, who are under the operational control and supervision of the mayors can be assigned to assist the BHERTs as they conduct house-to-house campaign in carrying out their tasks.
One BHERT per population of 5,000 is ideal and required. . The barangay has a minimum of 20 health workers, and 20 barangay tanods. The BHERT members have to be supplied with PPEs to protect themselves from the virus. . If the barangay government lacks the funds to do its job, the municipal or city government must provide support to fill up the gap. The provincial governments which directly supervise the component cities and municipalities within their territory must also lend their support with their provincial hospitals and medical staff.
The city, municipal, and provincial governments, must oversee the implementation of the anti-COVID strategy, programs, projects, activities within their territories.
The DOH does not have this manpower compliment, except a few staff in their respective regional offices, which should have been down-sized since l992 and their resources transferred to LGUs as mandated by the Local Government Code of 1991. Thus, the LGUs are the main actors in battling the pandemic with the DOH and DILG extending them support.
If the barangay is the convergence point of all the anti-coronavirus measures, then national and local governments must ensure that all 42,000 barangays across the country, especially in the hot spot areas, must be fully mobilized, funded, monitored with lightning speed if we hope to defeat COVID-19 and restore our economy towards normalcy.
Indeed, the mechanism and strategy in providing health services to our people, including times of pandemic, is already in place. What is needed is to make the mechanism work and the strategy strictly enforced, in a ” massive, focused, unified, coordinated, fast and monitored ” way.
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