Has pandemic response been recalibrated or is MECQ a repeat of the same policies?
It's looking like a normal market day as people gather to buy fresh produce at the street market of Divisoria in Manila City as Metro Manila and a number of its neighboring provinces revert to modified enhanced community quarantine until August 18.
The STAR/Miguel de Guzman

Has pandemic response been recalibrated or is MECQ a repeat of the same policies?

Franco Luna (Philstar.com) - August 10, 2020 - 6:02pm

MANILA, Philippines — After just six days under modified enhanced community quarantine, National Task Force against COVID-19 chairman Delfin Lorenzana, also defense secretary, said  Metro Manila is ready to revert back to general community quarantine status as the coronavirus situation has already shown marked improvement. 

Speaking in an interview on ABS-CBN's ANC, Lorenzana, said that aside from the need to jumpstart the economy, the national government has already addressed the concerns of healthcare frontliners by hiring more healthcare workers.

"I think the threat is going down. Yesterday we had 3,000 new cases, down from 6,000 previously. So I think we are ready to go down. We cannot continue with MECQ because we already know where the areas with infestations are. So we'll focus on those areas so that the others can also go to work," he said. 

"What (Health) Secretary (Francisco) Duque has done was to get employees of the [health department] in other regions [that] only have few infections and that have medical health workers that they can spare to come here," Lorenzana said.

"At the same time, the DOH is also hiring additional nurses. They have money, all they need to do is to hire them," he said.

Medical professionals and healthcare workers' groups had called for a 'timeout' in the pandemic response, urging the government to recalibrate its response to the pandemic. However, the six days of MECQ were no different from the initial MECQ declared on May 12.

In a separate interview aired over ANC's "Matters of Fact," Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano said that the Philippines is "still in control" of the coronavirus pandemic in the country, saying: "Eventually we hope the numbers will improve...It's not just like magic that when we declare MECQ then everything will turn out okay. We have a lot of jobs to do." 

"One challenge here is that unemployed nurses are hesitant to enlist and to be employed because in the beginning, it was just three months of employment being offered. To Secretary Duque, nobody would get into this dangerous job for only three months. What are you going to do after that? So we're thinking about raising it to two to six months of work," the defense chief also said.

"Military, police are in a better position to enforce quarantines...everybody has a role to play if we are to recover from this pandemic [and] the way I see it, frontliners are not just doctors and nurses. All of us need to help [and] we are positive that reservists with medial training will not refuse to serve when mobilized," he added.

'Too early to call MECQ a success'

In an online exchange, Coalition for People's Right to Health co-convenor Josh San Pedro told Philstar.com: "They don't know what data to use anymore." 

"It's too early to say that what was done was effective, especially taking into account the persistent delays and backlogs that still plague our data reporting and analysis...generally we're still seeing increases in cases, whether we look at it in the amount reported per day (which still ranging between 3-4,000 per day), or basing on the onset of illness," he said in an online exchange. 

San Pedro, whose coalition is among a group calling for a "medical quarantine" instead of "militaristic" lockdowns reiterated the calls of the healthcare sector, saying also that the MECQ has seen a "repeat of policies."

"Given the community transmission all over the country, and how we now lead ASEAN and the WHO Western Pacific Region, we don't need a repeat of policies that have not proven to be effective in mitigating the spread of the pandemic. Beyond quarantines and lockdowns, more attention must be given to the real frontlines— the communities and workplaces—not just the hospitals," San Pedro added.

He said that even stricter quarantines will not work without proper social aid and a shift to a "more medical and public health-oriented approach." 

"We need to reinforce and expand testing where it really matters, such as the areas where it has been spreading and health systems are unable to cope, aggressively and diligently do contact tracing, and improve the management and presentation of the very integral data for our pandemic response...the need is still to raise the bar and really focus on health needs."

Philstar.com reached out to NTF Chief Implementer Carlito Galvez, Jr for comment, though he has yet to respond as of this publishing. 

Has the government addressed the healthcare sector's concerns?

Government officials have so far seemed more focused on returning to GCQ, however, while some of the concerns raised by healthcare workers have yet to be addressed.

One statement from the National Task Force issued on August 4 says: "The government vowed to use the 15-day Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) it imposed in Metro Manila Bulacan, Rizal, Cavite and Laguna to prevent the further surge of COVID-19 transmissions and lower the number of positive cases in these areas."

“We'll make the most of these 15 days so that we can go back to general community quarantine,” Interior and Local Government Secretary and NTF Vice Chair Eduardo Año is quoted as saying in the statement.

In calling for the reimposition of ECQ, medical societies in late July said the government must review and refine pandemic response to address "hospital workforce efficiency, failure of case finding and isolation, failure of contact tracing and quarantine, transportation safety, workplace safety, public compliance with self-protection, [and] social amelioration."

Second Opinion, a separate group of doctors and medical workers, also called for a "medical quarantine", saying the current approach of "militaristic" enforcement is not backed by science.

"Doctors and healthcare workers must reclaim quarantine for what it should be: A public health measure aimed at saving lives by stopping the spread of disease. We must reject the distorted forms of 'community quarantine' being imposed on us, as these are devoid of scientific sense and health purpose, and serve only to oppress our people."

Aside from personnel movement within the DOH, the government has said little about the other items that the healthcare workers raised.

RELATED: How the government plans to address concerns raised by medical frontliners

Health Secretary Francisco Duque previously listed points that the government would address:

  1. Hiring additional health workers for reserve
  2. Additional benefits to healthcare workers
  3. Work and quarantine passes to minimize people going out 
  4. Localized lockdown strategy and implementation of Oplan Kalinga 
  5. Strict enforcement and the donation of 20 million cloth masks for the poor 
  6. Usage of RT-PCR as gold standard in detection
  7. Recommendation of MECQ 

The National Task Force Against COVID-19 said it will shift to Phase 2 of the National Action Plan crafted in March, which the NTF's chief implementer said "will need the support of everyone, particularly the private sector [to] ensure the health and welfare of the people while reviving the nation’s economy."

On Wednesday, August 5, the House Committee on Metro Manila development called for the transportation department to deploy more public utility vehicles to service the countless commuters still going to work despite the MECQ.

Joint Task Force COVID Shield, the task force's quarantine enforcement arm, also continues to deploy cops to "compel" compliance from "stubborn" barangay folk, while only P58.5 billion of the P100 billion allotted for social amelioration aid has been disbursed by the social welfare department well past its self-imposed July 31 deadline, already an extension, for its second tranche for families affected by the pandemic. 

Additional aid will depend on passage of the "Bayanihan to Recover As One" bill, the sequel to the law that gave Duterte sweeping powers to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coalition for People's Right to Health said that more has to be done to improve the health system in thr Philippines.

"Augmenting the health system should not be done at the expense of poorer barrios whose health workforce will be deployed, but [should be aimed at] actually improving the size and benefits of healthcare workers toiling for patients who lack even access to essential services," said. 

"This was the essence of the call for a 'timeout'—not to rest, but for recalibration of our response. We should [not] be socially distant to the plight of our health workers and especially the poor and sick during this pandemic."

No end in sight   

Malacañang on Monday said that the decision on whether or not it would be extending the MECQ was a "delicate balance" between protecting the public's health and salvaging the economy. 

"It entails a delicate balancing of protecting and saving people's health, to protecting and saving the economic health of the nation," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.

The Palace has urged Filipinos not to have a "wrong view" of the coronavirus situation in the Philippines, saying cases are rising in other countries too.

READ: For Palace, it's 'wrong' to say Philippines has more COVID-19 cases than Indonesia | 'Cases up abroad too': Roque plays down high daily COVID-19 case increases

In his public addresses, Duterte has been touting a prospective vaccine from China, which he considers to be the only path to a new normal post-coronavirus. 

In between the first day of June, when general community quarantine was put in place to restart the country's economy, and August 4, the first day of the second modified ECQ, the national caseload grew by 93,995 cases. The health department's tally stood at 18,638 the day the shift to GCQ was made

As of Sunday, the Philippines has 129,913 confirmed cases of the new pathogen. Thousands of cases are being added to the national caseload each day, which the government attributes to increased testing.

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