FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - March 14, 2020 - 12:00am

The World Health Organization (WHO) finally uttered that word no one wants to hear: pandemic.

Over a hundred countries all over the world have reported COVID-19 cases. All countries in the Eurozone have cases. Italy, with close to a thousand deaths associated with the virus, declared a nationwide lockdown. What the WHO finds alarming is the reluctance or incapacity of many jurisdictions to do what is necessary to check the spread of infections.

We cannot even begin estimating the economic costs from this epidemic. The stock markets are in free fall. A stupid war for market share between Russia and Saudi Arabia has also put oil prices in free fall. Many economists are convinced the global economy will succumb to a recession this year.

Against the dire economic forecasts, there is some hope this pandemic can be defeated.

In Wuhan, new reported cases of the disease fell to single digits per day this week. Emergency wards, hurriedly built to meet the upsurge of infected people, are being decommissioned. In South Korea, the spread of infections appears to have been checked by relentless “track, test and treat” methods.

China now accounts for 70 percent of all infections. That share is bound to go down as new infections decline and as more people are infected elsewhere in the world. The country that was the epicenter of this epidemic is now showing signs that pestilence could be turned back.

Earlier this week, President Xi Jinping showed up at Wuhan. The event should serve to rally his people to win this fight against the virus.

In the first week of February, soon after the full nature of the epidemic became evident, Beijing did what heretofore was unimaginable. The entire city of Wuhan and then the entire province of Hubei was put on lockdown.

That was a costly thing to do, although probably the only way to prevent the virus from spreading throughout China. A “people’s war” was declared against the virus.

In the first week of February, 10,000 health workers from all over China volunteered to serve in virus-hit Wuhan. In the week after, all the other provinces of this large country took responsibility for caring for the other cities and districts of Hubei province, sending in more volunteers and medical supplies.

Canadian epidemiologist Bruce Aylward of the WHO China Joint Mission was fully impressed. He observed that “the speed, intensity and country’s nationwide effort in fighting the coronavirus is truly unique.”

Now, in many Chinese cities, life appears to be returning to normal. Ninety percent of all Starbucks outlets in Yunnan province and in Shanghai have reopened. Shang Jianhua of China’s Migrant Workers Office estimates that this week 60 percent of the nation’s 78 million migrant workers are back to work.

The same observation may be made of South Korea’s workplaces. The comprehensive government response in that country is now showing signs of success.

We have much to learn from the decisiveness with which China and South Korea responded to the threat posed by the virus. To be sure, the bold responses to these two northeast Asian countries inspired Italy to put its own country on lockdown.


Early this week, Donald Trump addressed his nation. Such addresses are normally reserved for rallying the people to meet an impending challenge and indicate a way forward.

In characteristic Trump fashion, he blamed other countries for the problem and spoke nothing about the glaring weaknesses of his administration’s domestic response. Without consulting with his country’s travel industry, he ordered the suspension of travel from Europe.

The European leaders, not consulted on this bizarre move, are outraged. In a statement, both the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission reminded everyone that this outbreak is “a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action.”

Suspending travel from Europe makes no sense. The virus is already in the US, spreading ominously. Although the US conducts least number of tests per capita, over a thousand Americans have been infected.

The very next day after Trump’s address, the New York Stock Exchange, main measure of America’s economic health, shed another thousand points. America’s 11-year bull run officially ended.

The markets in both Europe and Asia crashed soundly. It is bad enough that the US is providing no leadership for the rest of the world. It is worse that everyday the American president misrepresents the facts about this epidemic.

In our case, the virus spread rapidly just the past week. It has been a source of pride that we had kept down the number of local infections while the virus swept across the globe. Now we face the reality that massive infections could happen here as well.

Fortunately, our leaders seem ready to undertake the tough measures necessary to deal with this epidemic. The Inter-agency Task Force on Infectious Diseases has drawn up contingency plans in case the rate of infections ramp up. Our police and military have plans to enforce localized lockdowns if doing so becomes necessary.

With the strong support of President Duterte, the task force came up with protocols for community responses to the infection. Schools are suspended and work in public agencies will be limited to skeletal forces over the next few weeks. Air travel in the archipelago will be restricted for a month – subject to daily review.

What seems to be lacking in our response is the level of voluntarism we saw in China and South Korea’s successful strategies.

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