Yearender: New breed of Metro mayors take innovative steps in battle vs COVID-19

Published January 3, 2021, 11:38 AM

by Jhon Aldrin Casinas

Neophyte mayors in Metro Manila were propelled into a major battleground this 2020, just months after assuming office following their victory in the 2019 midterm elections.


With the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in March, the local chief executives of the Cities of Pasig and San Juan mustered their experiences in governance and employed innovative measures to curb the spread of the disease in their respective localities.

In Pasig City, the local government led by its young and progressive mayor, Vico Sotto, has made use of technology in their COVID-19 response—from flying drones spraying disinfectants to the development of the city’s health monitoring system.

Improving healthcare system

Sotto’s administration focused its efforts in developing the city’s health delivery service to improving its medical response capabilities to residents amid the health crisis that took everyone by surprise.

The Pasig Health Monitor was established to speed up and improve the provision of medical services and the overall health response of the local government.

The city’s health monitoring system serves as the central database of the residents’  medical records, an integrated inventory of the city’s health resources, and the Pasig Pass—the city’s quick response (QR) code-based contact tracing solution.

Ramped up COVID-19 testing

To increase testing capabilities, Pasig City built its own molecular diagnostic laboratory to solve the backlogs in processing swab samples and difficulty in conducting COVID-19 tests among residents.

The facility is equipped to process both reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests and enhanced chemiluminescence immunoassay (ECLIA) testing, a type of test that detects antibodies in blood samples.

With more people getting infected, the local government made a significant upgrade in its isolation capacity by converting Rizal High School into a centralized quarantine facility that can accommodate up to 1,000 mild and asymptomatic COVID-19 patients.

The city also transformed the Pasig City Children’s Hospital into a referral center solely for the treatment of COVID-19 patients to prevent cross contamination among patients.

“I think this is one of the best decisions that we made because it really increased the capacity of our healthcare system locally here in Pasig,” Sotto said.

“It allowed us to reduce the risk of cross contamination and most importantly, it allowed us to maintain the services of our general hospital. Overall, it allowed us to use our resources more efficiently,” he added.

Cash aid for non-SAP recipients

As part of its COVID-19 response, the city government provided families not covered by the national government’s social amelioration program (SAP) with P8,000 subsidy under the Pasig Supplemental SAP.

The local government has allocated more than P1 billion in financial support to families — rich or poor. In order to secure the funds, Sotto said some programs and projects of the city were either cancelled or deferred.

Laptops, tablets for students, teachers

In support of the blended learning as a result of health restrictions, the Pasig City government provided students and teachers with computer tablets and laptops, as the Department of Education pushed through with the new learning setup.

Sotto stressed that the education of children should continue despite the challenges brought by the health crisis and vowed to support the education sector in the city.  

The local government spent about P1.3 billion for the purchase of 140,000 tablet computers for public elementary and high school students, 5,225 laptops for teachers, and other education-related services.

“We did not favor anyone [in the bidding process]. P1.3 billion of your money, of tax payers money, was used wisely, effectively and honestly,” Sotto said. “This is not a waste of money. This is an investment for the next generation of Pasigueños.”

Bike an essential mode of transport 

In April, the Pasig City government declared biking an essential form of transportation in the city following the Luzon-wide lockdown that paralyzed mass transport in Metro Manila.

This allowed bicycle stores and repair shops to operate during the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) period for those who turned to biking as mode of transport during the lockdown.

Pop-up bike lanes along major thoroughfares and inner roads in the city were setup to provide cyclists their own space separate from fast moving vehicles.

“We are encouraging everyone to bike,” Sotto said. “This quarantine, we have proven that bike riding is possible here in the Philippines even if it’s hot.  Bike riding works even in warm places.”

To further promote the culture of biking, Pasig City launched an interest-free bike loan program for LGU employees to help them secure their own bikes amid the limited transport options. 

The local government likewise deployed electric vehicles such as e-jeeps, e-bikes, and e-trikes to transport health workers and residents in need of medical assistance, and essential workers.

San Juan City: Riding the pandemic’s wave of change

Promoting the culture of biking was among the major initiatives of the San Juan City government, part of the adjustments to adapt to the new normal. 

Mayor Francis Zamora said the local government saw the need to protect cyclists passing along the major and inner thoroughfares in the city as more people turned to bicycle as an alternative mode of transport in the time of pandemic when mass transport was suspended to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Bike lanes were quickly drawn along portions of Ortigas Avenue, N. Domingo Street, Pinaglabanan Street, Santolan Road, and Wilson Street.

The city also launched the San Juan Bike Patrollers, composed of policemen tasked to enforce the strict implementation of health protocols.

“Mobility is important and is one of our major learning during the pandemic. A lot of our frontliners who do not own cars bought bicycles to commute from home to work and back and it is only fitting that we make sure they are safe on our streets,” Zamora said.

Decline in the number of new infections

From being one of the COVID-19 hotspots in the country, San Juan City managed to bring down the number of residents getting infected with the dreaded disease.

The city ended 2020 with active COVID-19 cases below the 100-mark, significantly lower compared to around 640 active cases. 

Zamora credited this decline to the “collective efforts” of the LGU and its residents, who have suffered the most from the effects of the health crisis.

“But we should not lower our guard in our fight against COVID-19,” he said. “We must all continue with our effective interventions and adherence to health and safety protocols in San Juan to further bring down the number cases.”

As part of its effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the local government provided free COVID-19 tests to the city’s frontliners and residents to quickly determine those infected and provide them with appropriate medical interventions.

“We never charge for our PCR tests in San Juan. If you want to get tested, you need to contact the City Health Office and your Barangay Health Emergency Response Teams in San Juan,” Zamora said.

Waves of relief goods

As Metro Manila went on lockdown, the San Juan LGU sent waves of relief goods to residents affected by health restrictions.  The local government distributed food packs to 45,000 families in the city’s 21 barangays at least 15 times since March, dropping these at their doorsteps. 

The challenges and trials brought by 2020 tested the capabilities of these new leaders in providing for their constituents at a time when they needed government support the most.

They may be new in politics and public service of this magnitude but these neophyte public servants have displayed aggressiveness in their COVID-19 response with fresh ideas and innovative measures.

It is exciting to watch what these new breed of politicians will do as the nation gripped with a raging global health crisis moves forward towards healing and recovery.