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

If Trump’s White House were in Manila, Yorme would have ordered it put on “hard lockdown.” Battle-clad SAF troopers would have been deployed around the perimeter while medics moved in to subject everyone to tests. All inhabitants of the place would have had to subsist on emergency food packs until the procedure was completed.

Over the past few days, a valet to Trump and a senior aide to Vice-President Mike Pence tested positive for the virus. America’s most prominent epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the Center for Disease Control and the head of the US Food and Drug Administration went into isolation following protocols.

Last week, Donald Trump was downplaying the importance of conducting tests in an effort to deflect from his administration’s failure to provide adequate testing. Since the outbreak at the White House, he has been undergoing tests on a daily basis.  He will continue to do that for some time to come.

The White House staff has been lax in implementing health protocols, taking the cue from Trump himself who refuses to wear a mask. The outbreak of infections at the West Wing could not have been more inconvenient. Trump was pushing for the country to open up notwithstanding the peril of a more dangerous second wave of infections.

A few days ago, Seoul ordered the lockdown of the city’s nightclub district after a new outbreak was traced to the area. South Korea has been among the most successful countries in fighting the epidemic. But each time restrictions are relaxed, new outbreaks happen.

Singapore is the textbook case for how rebounds in infection could turn out worse than the first wave. The small city-state now has more cases of COVID-19 than we have – although a much lower number of deaths.

In Germany, a rebound in infections also happened after the Merkel government began easing restrictions. Both Singapore and Germany, fortunately, have strong health care systems and have developed excellent methods for testing, tracing and treating infected citizens.

One has to worry about the push to reopen the economy in the US even as infections continue to rise. The country accounts for a third of all infections globally and the highest death toll.  Should a surge in infections happen in the haste to open up the economy, the US will become an exporter of the disease and threaten the hard-won gains of other countries in fighting this pandemic.

The rush to open up the American economy is dictated by politics not by science. Trump clings to this vain hope that a strong economic surge will get him reelected next November. He is willing to tolerate a rising body count even as the odds for a quick rebound are close to nil.

The outbreak of infections in the White House itself undermines Trump’s narrative about opening up the economy. A surge of infections over the next weeks attributable to the recklessness in opening up the economy will completely demolish what remains of Trump’s credibility.

Localize

It is true that we have not ramped up our testing capacity as rapidly as Vietnam did. That explains the ability of this country to minimize the impact of the epidemic on its economy and its people.

We are only approaching a third of Vietnam’s testing capacity. But our being an archipelago comes to our advantage for a change. Many islands remain COVID-free. Infections are concentrated in the dense urban populations of Metro Manila, Cebu and Davao. Unfortunately, much of our economy is also concentrated in these urban areas.

Our other advantage is a strong barangay-based system of local governance. This has been the mechanism that distributed relief, enforced quarantine measures and enhanced monitoring.

The main element in the strategies adopted by countries that have been able to minimize the adverse impact of this pandemic has been the ability to localize restrictions as much as possible. This is made possible by rapidly increasing testing and tracing capacity.

A good model we may look at is the German policy of an “emergency brake” at the disposal of local authorities. As the general economy opens up, local authorities may restore restrictions as soon as infections rise to 50 cases per 100,000 residents.

Instead of closing down entire cities and provinces, a method where the economic costs far outweigh gains in public health, we may devolve monitoring to the barangay level. The village units should be entrusted with more resources for rapid testing, monitoring and tracing. The possibility of a hard lockdown will encourage citizens to be more vigilant in observing distancing procedures.

At the onset of this pandemic, our first reaction was to quarantine everybody and build up our hospital bed capacity to meet the surge in infections. Among our earliest failures was to allow those infected but with mild symptoms to quarantine at home. That is unreliable. The infected should have been isolated in the secondary facilities we have now built for the purpose.

All local governments are now encouraged to build their own quarantine facilities. This is really the first trench in preventing our health care system from being swamped.

We also have some 30 accredited facilities that are geographically well dispersed. Infections detected through surveillance testing methods may easily be moved to quarantine facilities and subjected to more reliable diagnostic tests.

Maintaining a high-grade testing and tracing infrastructure is going to be costly to be sure. But it is costlier to shut down the whole economy.

The thinking at the IATF now seems more inclined towards greater localization of restrictions.

MIKE PENCE SAF TROOPERS TRUMP YORME
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