By the time this column sees print, Metro Manila would have been under Alert Level 4 for one week. An official of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) described the situation over the weekend as “good,” but his assessment pertains only to the enforcement aspect, not the impact of this pilot experiment on containing the spread of infections. According to the Department of Health (DOH), the “full effect” will be seen in two to three weeks, by which time we would know if this experiment is indeed as effective as touted by a Cabinet official.
The issue with granular lockdowns is not the concept. Several countries have been enforcing localized restrictions on movement as one way to contain the virus. It is part of an arsenal of responses, which includes testing, tracing, and vaccination. We are nowhere as effective as these countries in these areas.
Aside from government’s shortcomings in these areas, what concerns experts, and this includes the World Health Organization (WHO), is the timing of the lockdown experiment. Before the Alert Level System was put in place, the DOH had warned that the number of cases may reach over 30,000 by the end of September. Lately, they have even disputed the assertion made by the independent OCTA Research group that the cases in Metro Manila have already peaked and would soon decline. Although they use the same data, the DOH cited projections by their experts that the peak in the capital region would be reached only by October.
In the event that this experiment proves to be effective in Metro Manila, the DILG says the Alert Level System would be implemented nationwide by Oct. 1. This could prove to be problematic, particularly for the local governments.
Containing the virus under the Alert Level System rests on the effective enforcement of granular lockdowns. This is within the authority of the mayors. So far, some 171 areas in the capital region have been placed by their respective mayors under granular lockdown. These are either entire streets or portions of it, a house or clusters of houses, or condominium buildings where infection cases are considered high. Residents in these areas are required to stay at home for at least 14 days.
Metro Manila LGUs have the resources to enforce granular lockdowns. They also conduct tracing and testing of all residents in the affected areas, and provide food and other basic needs during the 14-day lockdown period. The situation is different outside Metro Manila. Except for a few cities, these localities are not as fiscally flexible, or may not even have the resources to enforce granular lockdowns. Whatever resources these local governments may have had prior to the pandemic, especially fourth and fifth class municipalities, have either been stretched thinly or depleted as a result of re-channeling funds to meet the medical needs of constituents and extending aid to the needy.
A DILG official said under the new system, the Metro Manila LGU and the national government share the responsibility of providing food and other basic needs. As he explained it in an interview, the local government provides the “ayuda” for the first seven days of the 14-day lockdown period, and the national government takes care of the rest. Should the Alert System go national, will this sharing scheme also be adopted outside Metro Manila? What if the locality cannot provide “ayuda”? Will the national government assume full responsibility for “ayuda,” not to mention localized testing and tracing?
For these LGUs and their mayors, granular lockdowns may prove to be as challenging as the pandemic.