Beyond COVID-19
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - April 7, 2020 - 12:00am

Of the reflections I laid my hands on during these past hard times, I found Dr. Ben Malayang’s a compelling message about the impact of COVID-19 on our lives. It talks about our health care system being “stretched to the limits,” of the economy flipping, people losing jobs, churches emptied. 

But it also talks of collateral good news, such as air pollution going down, crimes against persons and property having dropped. These, he says, are “sparkles of good news amidst a viral contagion.” But are these reasons to celebrate? He thinks not. He dreads that if we and our authorities fail to institute measures to sustain these drops of crimes against Nature and people, they’ll soon begin to reverse and start rising again when the COVID-19 emergency is lifted and we return back to our “normal lives” of once again spewing pollutants into our air, dirtying our water bodies, consuming much and throwing away more trash, over imposing ourselves on Nature, and assaulting and killing people.

Ben starts off with the disease being “horrible news, that many are sick, doctors, nurses and health workers are heroically trying to do their best to care for those afflicted by the virus, frustrated that there’s no cure for it at this time, some even paying with their own lives. Our political leaders are scrambling for ways to muster the resources of government to stem the tide of infections and ‘flatten the curve’ of infection rates.”

Malayang is a former president of Silliman University in Dumaguete City, and a former undersecretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. His observation is that of our health care system being “to now almost breaking point. People are losing jobs, businesses are losing customers; wage earners are at an edge on how they could feed their children and loved ones; the market is in jitters; expensive investments in hotels, resorts, airlines, restaurants, and other tourism-related industries are at risk with the sudden loss of visitors and drop in domestic travels. Schools are closing. Churches are emptied and resorting to new means to support the spiritual needs of their flocks.”

Ben continues, “And this emergency – if present measures succeed – is more likely to stretch on for four to six months, some experts say. If the measures fail (and this is likely if people do not heed calls for social distancing, for intensified sanitation, and for observing community quarantine), who knows how many more months this crisis would last?”

“I can think of the following: Air pollution in many of our cities is going down. Trash volumes are down because of the reduced economic activities and increased control of household consumption in the face of rising economic and income uncertainties. Water quality in waterways where industrial effluents have been discharged are improving because industries are slowing down. While there will be concerns for those in tourism sites who would be losing jobs and incomes, our tourist destinations are renewing life and recovering breath. Heavily visited beaches and dive sites are recovering. Protected areas are less stressed.

“Crimes against persons and property have dropped as well. CNN reported an 80 percent drop in Metro Manila in March 15-20, citing reports by National Capital Region Police Director, PMGen. Debold Sinas. It was also 80 percent in Central Luzon compared to the same reporting period last year, citing Region 3 Police Director, PBGen. Rhodel Sermonia. Cebu’s The Freeman reported a 60 percent drop in Central Visayas against the numbers for the same month in March last year, citing a briefing by the Region 7 Police Director, PBGen. Albert Ferro.”

“It takes time for Nature to fully recover from our assaults on it: 45 years to improve air quality in the US, says the US Environmental Protection Agency; decades to improve water quality in Pasig (and it still remains far from being really cleaned); at least 30 years for coral reefs to recover after being destroyed in just instants by dynamite fishing or days of destructive fishing, says Dr. Angel Alcala and Dr. Ed Gomez, both National Scientists; and years and years of reforestation to have denuded forests back again.

“Solving crimes against people (called “index crimes”) takes so much time, money, and efforts. It needs to be improved so that momentary declines in crimes could be sustained.

“Solving index crimes is intractably hard. The “solution efficiency” of index crimes in the country has been uneven; in some places even dismal. The Philippine Information Agency reports that Caraga had the highest regional “crime solution efficiency” (CSE) of 89.39 percent in April 2019. (This is nice because this is so close to where I live.) It is followed by Region 11 (85.41 percent) and Region 1 (83.41). But elsewhere, the numbers are concerning. The Freeman reports in January 3, 2020 that the crime rate in Central Visayas had gone down, but CSE was only 56 percent. In October last year, Ratzhiel San Juan of reported that the Philippines ranked fifth in the world in unsolved murders of journalists; 40 in 2018 then 41 in 2019. The last in Dumaguete, my second home.

“And there are many more: against human rights workers, farmers, teachers, students, lawyers, doctors, and mayors; people not much unlike you and me; people who serve and help others.”

Ben writes that unsolved killings are distressing. “They indicate only bad news: either gross incompetence or indifference of our investigative agencies; low budgets for investigations that victims’ families have been reported to have been asked to fork out for investigation expenses; poor political leadership; or complicity of prominent and powerful people in these crimes.

“COVID-19 is a horror in all sense of the word. While it is giving us time to let Nature heal from its hurts and for us to relish drops in index crimes, let us vigorously fight it now. But let us also use this time to devise ways to sustain the healing of our forests, beaches, coral reefs, air, and water, and our relief from killings and murders. Let us identify ways to better protect our natural treasures and to improve our ability to solve crimes against persons, that are especially distressing to our people. Because these, too, are horrible ‘viruses’ that weaken our well-being and health as a nation.

“They, too, need to be crushed as decisively as COVID-19.”

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