Coming to their senses?

Published August 25, 2021, 12:02 AM

by Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay

GOVERNANCE MATTERS

Former Vice President Jejomar Binay

A ranking government official was quoted in media as defending the decision of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) to relax quarantine restrictions in Metro Manila despite alarming increases in the number of daily COVID-19 cases.

He said it was not for lack of funds for cash aid or “ayuda,” as some sectors had claimed, although it has been said – more in jest but with a ring of truth – that the Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) is practically the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) but without “ayuda.”

Under this looser quarantine classification, people are allowed to go to work in certain businesses in order to keep the economy moving, however sluggishly. They do so even without adequate public transportation more than a year after the pandemic was first reported, with their movements reined in by combat-ready policemen and grim-faced barangay staff.

It has been 17 months since we were placed under lockdown, and still our fellow Filipinos venture out of their homes with the barest of health protection from their government against a  virus that is still very much with us, and again running uncontrolled. What they need to survive, they have to earn, at great risk to their lives and those of their loved ones.

The reason given by this official for the downgrade, as reported online, is to “balance” the health of the people and the economy.

Balance, to my understanding, is a state of even distribution, where elements or factors are in precise proportion or symmetry. For most medical experts and observers, however, the IATF decision is tilted in favor of the economy. Task force members chose between “lives and livelihood,” one of the experts posted on twitter. From a health management perspective, it is difficult to justify relaxing restrictions when cases continue to rise daily, hospitals are again at full capacity, and more children are being treated for COVID-19. Projections from the usually cautious Department of Health (DOH) are unexpectedly grim. The DOH said at its present rate, the number of active cases could exceed 200,000 by end September.

According to some observers, what triggered the downgrade, and divided the IATF that it had to resort to secret balloting, was a scenario advanced by the DOH of a five-week extension of ECQ to slow down the spread of the virus. This was totally unacceptable to the economic team and the country’s business groups. And the business groups even publicly stated what used to be said only in hushed tones in business circles: that lockdowns “are not the remedy” to the pandemic.

And it seems that some IATF members have finally come to their senses. They are reportedly questioning the practicality of lockdowns and now want a fresh approach to fighting the pandemic.

The IATF need not commission a study or convene a virtual meeting of experts to identify new approaches. Independent experts and groups, including the World Bank,  have been calling the government’s attention to the ruinous effect on the economy of its predisposition to resort to lockdowns.  But government chose to ignore them.

A World Bank official even blamed the country’s dire prospects for an early economic recovery on lockdowns. I wrote about this a few columns back, and the words of the said World Bank official needs repeating: “The Philippines relied more on prolonged restrictions on mobility rather than an effective test-based strategy.”

It is a sad and damning commentary on government’s mismanagement of the pandemic that a choice had to be made between saving lives or saving jobs, when both can be done.

And the government would not be in such a dilemma, one of its own making, had it taken the correct steps as early as last year: shored up our health system, improved mass testing and contact tracing, imposed stricter border controls, and diverted government resources to provide financial and economic assistance for workers and local businesses.

Instead, it relied on oppressive lockdowns that hurt the economy, prioritized infrastructure projects that failed to generate the needed jobs, and misused billions in precious government funds that could have saved lives and the economy.

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