Togetherness in the whole wide world
FROM A DISTANCE - Carmen N. Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - March 29, 2020 - 12:00am

Of all the many things the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching Filipinos, it is about getting out of oneself and recognize we belong to the world just as much. Country or individual we are all in it.

We’re now two weeks into the lockdown. As I write this column we now have more than 800 confirmed cases. This could climb more but we can get this under control if, and only if everyone and I mean everyone, follows the rules. We are a people who dislike rules and think that being forced to obey even if it is for the good of everyone is “dictatorship.”

It is time that we look at how different countries have coped with the pandemic by enforcing the law. Let me borrow some harsh words from New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinta Adern “Act like you have COVID-19 and stay at home. Breaking the rules could kill someone close to you.” She is not known for dramatic statements of this nature, I’m told she’s one of the most ‘liberal’ world leaders today. She also just declared a state of national emergency.

There is a time to be liberal and a time for enforcing the law. I came across this quote from New Zealand’s Prime Minister while taking a tour through the internet of the different approaches and policy choices countries are taking to trying to stem the tide of COVID-19.

Let me begin my tour with New Zealand. With 283 cases as of the time of writing, it took the decision to shut its borders to foreigners on 19 March, and announced a lockdown on 23 March to go into effect 48 hours after, and declared a state of national emergency on March 25.

In justifying the declaration of a state of national emergency Prime Minister Adern explained that it was to preserve their way of life, that “every person still at work, interacting with others, increases the risk of the virus spreading exponentially and means we will be in lockdown for longer.” She added that “We will not hesitate to use our enforcement powers if needed.”

Some headlines in New Zealand the day after the lockdown came into effect were “Lockdown: Confusion after couple walking told to go home,” and “PM demands names of landlords flouting lockdown rules.” Some of the rules of the lockdown are the same as ours – supermarkets are still open, only those in essential services go to work.

Here shoppers are allowed only five at a time while others file outside with social distancing (about six feet) from each other.

While it may be different in other countries food delivery is not allowed to operate. Food deliverers are made to wait at the village gate until the customer collects it from the guardhouse. And of course, it is a nation-wide lockdown while the Philippines is just, for now, Luzon.

On 23 March the UK government announced its ‘stay-at-home’ policy. I’ve selected this headline “England: police to get power to use force to impose coronavirus lockdown” with 9,529 COVID-19 cases.  Andy Cooke, the chief constable of Merseyside police was quoted in the article as saying “You rely on goodwill but there might be a small bunch of idiots who have to have enforcement used against them.”

Meanwhile the headlines in the United States were dominated with the news that they now had more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any other country. More than 30 US states so far have declared states of emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. While President Trump has declared it a national emergency on March 13. In doing so he said that Americans should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

A quite different response thus far has been our near neighbor Indonesia, they now have 893 confirmed cases and 78 deaths. But President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has not put the country under a Lockdown, but Jakarta is under a state of emergency. A headline from the Jakarta Post was “Will Indonesia be Southeast Asia’s Italy?”. The article goes on to warn that Jakarta has not stopped people entering or exiting the capital area allowing the virus to spread to other provinces. Now other regions are confirming their first cases.

This is what worries me the most. Our best equipped hospitals and best trained medical staff are here in Metro Manila. Should infections spread to the provinces we are not equipped to deal with it. Already we are told that the hospitals in Manila are at capacity dealing with cases. This is why all of us must follow the quarantine rules.

This is where economic policy must support the quarantine efforts. So I welcome the P2 billion initial budget set aside by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) for social protection programs for vulnerable workers, to be used for wage subsidy/financial support to COVID-19 affected establishments and workers and the mobilization of an existing P1.2 billion in the Social Security System (SSS) to cover unemployment benefits for dislocated workers. The challenge is going to be in how it will be disbursed.

We are not unique in this. Every country in the world is faced with an enormous economic challenge. We need to reduce the hardships individuals face – these are often direct cash transfers. One sector we need to think about are our micro and small and medium sized businesses who don’t have the cash reserves to ride out this crisis.

This goes beyond my traditional fields of interests but again, analysis of China’s support for this sector included: allowances for deferred payments of social security premiums and certain taxes, rent reductions, loan extensions, loan interest rate reductions, and subsidy increases, among others.

 Harmful and despicable the COVID-19 pandemic may be, we will remember it as the time when Filipinos (especially our politicians) learned to live not only with each other but also to be conscious there is a world outside the Philippines.

I’ve taken a world tour to look at examples, but there was a good op-ed in the Bangkok Post that argued that “Asean must unite to resolve -19”. Thitinan Pongsudhirak argues that the whole of Asean must respond to COVID-19 as a united region, through information sharing and effective policy coordination to prevent the disease from returning amongst other things. Let’s begin with Asean but rope in others that we can – China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Australia – whoever is willing to come to the table and cooperate at the urgent time of need.

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