FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - March 21, 2020 - 12:00am

We can do this. We just need to.

The pandemic we now confront is an unprecedented one. None of us is prepared for this. 

The lockdown government has imposed is unprecedented. There will be much difficulty and many mistakes. No one is an expert in undertaking something of this scale. 

We will have to take COVID-19 as an existential threat to all of humanity. The “war” against it is an understatement. We are fighting for survival like we have never done before.

Right now, health care systems across the globe are crashing. The frontliners are themselves decimated by the disease. Resources to fight this scourge are thinning. We are all hoping science will come to the rescue – although it is clear we have to wait a bit longer for a vaccine to become available. 

The global financial system is under great strain. Like the health systems, it is likewise in danger of collapsing. What will follow is a global depression that will put 1929 to shame.

The only instrument we have to fight back against this virus is government. Governments can mobilize the medical resources to test and treat the infected in the most systematic manner. Only government can mobilize the agencies of social control to regulate interaction, movement and personal behavior.

We have to trust government at this time. We have no other choice.

The Philippine government has decided to adopt a Wuhan-style lockdown in a frantic attempt to “flatten the curve.” That means we have to moderate the rate of infections so that they do not crash the health system.

We might have a low number of infections (217 by last count) but a very high rate of mortality among those infected (10 percent). That departure from global averages may be due to the fact that a large number of infected people have not been accounted for due to shortage of testing kits. With a large number of donated kits now available, the official number of infected persons is bound to rise. The mortality rate is bound to decline closer to the global average.

We will see over the next few days how effective the drastic approach of a lockdown is. At that point, our leaders will have to decide whether to further tighten regulations or relax them.

The lockdown will, no doubt produce great economic and social stress. The accumulating stress could lead to outbreaks of crime or street violence. The police must be ready to manage this.

One aspect of the lockdown might need urgent review. If the lockdown covers all of Luzon, the continuation of the continuation of checkpoints along Metro Manila’s “borders” seem a redundancy. The redundancy chokes the movement of food supplies and health workers.

 Apart from health workers, many other service personnel need to get to their posts. Workers in the energy sector, the logistics industry and vital retail outlets need to work or supplies in the metropolis will run short. When that happens, the level of panic will rise.

A large part of our labor force is composed of day workers. If they don’t work, they don’t get any pay. If they don’t get paid, they cannot buy food. Hunger will stalk the metropolis threatening social peace and public safety.

So far – and this is the good news – our people’s response to the challenges of the day has been heroic.

Health workers walked long distances to get to their posts. In most neighborhoods, people have observed the quarantines. Ordinary folk have volunteered support. Large conglomerates have shown great social responsibility.

San Miguel Corp.’s Ramon Ang has been an inspiration the past few days. It seems this generous individual has thrown the business side of things out of the window for the moment as he personally rallied employees to keep the plants running and the communities supplied. 

Ginebra San Miguel quickly shifted its facilities to produce rubbing alcohol, quickly donated to the charities and hospitals. San Miguel Foods managers have negotiated roadblocks and lockdowns to keep their plants running to maintain supply. The conglomerate has shifted to producing Nutribuns that are distributed for free to help avert the incidence of hunger and malnutrition during this difficult time.

The large conglomerates have likewise responded admirably to deliver supplies to the frontlines and keep the economy running. Since 99 percent of our enterprises, employing the same proportion of workers, are micro to medium enterprises, they rely on the large conglomerates to provide the hubs to keep business running.  The cancellation of rents and the suspension of bills due are important measures to help families subsist through this difficult time. 

Over the last few days, local governments have been pressed to provide food to the poor families stranded by the lockdown and unable to earn their normal daily incomes. There are limits to how long this can be sustained. 

Instead of packing bulky bags of food and distributing the goods to households, it might be more efficient to distribute food coupons as the City of Valenzuela has done. Our supermarket chains have the most efficient logistics systems in place. They are better at moving and storing food at lowest cost than municipal employees. Trust the existing logistics hubs.

The longer we go through this, the more the subsidies might be required to keep poor families fed. Government must be ready to provide these subsidies, even if it means diverting state resources from other expenditure items. 

Let’s reconcile with this fact: the growth we projected is gone. We are now on survival mode.

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