On March 29, Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) – the strictest level of quarantine – was once again imposed on the National Capital Region (NCR) and the adjoining provinces of Bulacan, Laguna, Cavite and Rizal. It was supposed to be in effect until April 4 but was subsequently extended by another week. This was in response to a rapidly rising wave of Covid infections.
Almost one year after ECQ was first imposed on the country, what are some of the lessons learned or missed.
To begin with, the goal of the ECQ remains the same: to arrest the spread of the Covid-19 virus by restricting mobility. Last year, ECQ was used to build up the critical care capacity of the country that was extremely anemic at the time. The urgent mission was to flatten the curve. This year, it was used to create supplementary capacity and normalize hospital operations due to the suddenness in the rise of cases.
One of the lessons that we apparently did not learn well enough is the primacy of Covid testing. Although we built-up testing capacity, the number of tests administered seemingly waned over time. Next only to prevention, detection is the key to isolation, treatment and tracing. Understandably, due to the high cost of RT-PCR tests – or even antigen testing – it is not high on the spending priorities of people.
In order to sustain rates of testing, government and the private sector can collaborate (read as cost share) on a program that encourages and enables people to get regularly tested. Last year, the private sector went all out in deploying rapid testing as a line of first defense. It was not sustainable as a purely private sector initiative, though. Short of vaccinating 70 percent of its employees to attain herd immunity, testing is still the most reliable firewall in the workplace, especially since over 90 percent of Covid cases are asymptomatic.
On the other hand, one of the lessons that we seemed to have learned well is that even while mobility of people is being restricted, mobility is still critical to sustain essential services. Last year, public transport was shutdown under ECQ. As a result, our front liners and other essential workers found it extremely difficult to get to hospitals, laboratories and, of course, back home. This year, public transport was allowed to continue operations, albeit in limited force.
A missed opportunity, though, was sustaining the effort to maintain safe transport environments. When public utility vehicles were allowed to resume plying their routes, they were required to enforce strict protocols – registering for contact tracing, contactless payments, taking of temperatures, disinfecting of passengers and physical distancing in the vehicle. Over time, these protocols were less and less strictly enforced, if not totally ignored.
To remedy this, perhaps, roving MMDA marshals can be deployed to monitor strict compliance with health protocols. It won’t be necessary to appoint new marshals – although this would help the employment situation – if the MMDA repurposes some of their people from fixed stations to roving duty. It goes without saying that violations must be dealt with severely. It is understandable that we need to increase capacity of public transport in line with the reopening of the economy but we cannot relax protocols, or the enforcement thereof.
A mixed result is the sustained use of work-from-home (WFH). During last year’s ECQ, the rush to set-up virtual offices or workplaces spread like wildfire. There was no choice, really. It resulted to a spike in digital literacy across the demographic landscape. Productivity was safeguarded and, in some instances, even improved. It also helped decongest road traffic although, admittedly, it crowded digital highways.
As the economy started to reopen, employers started increasing the number of employees required to work-from-office. Shuttles had to be provided and adequate physical distancing in the workplace had to be observed. Perhaps, it was too soon to reinstall on-site work up to 100 percent. Even Singapore took a full year before allowing up to 75 percent of workforces to report to office, effective only from April 5, 2021.
Clearly, WFH has its benefits – including an acceleration in our digitalization initiatives – but companies are too easily shedding the gains rather than taking the opportunity to make changes in its work structure. I think there should be a serious study to identify increased productivity through business process reform.
Anecdotally, ECQ2 was very much the same as ECQ1 – the same panic buying, the same calls to action, the same jokes, viral messages and videos. But we now know more than we ever knew when ECQ1 was declared. We should be able to show gains and an improved ability to adapt. Being able to live with the virus is the key. And we have to flatten the fear. Hopefully this will not be a rolling ECQ as it was last year.