FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - May 23, 2020 - 12:00am

Expect dramatic changes in the community quarantine arrangements after May 31.

The IATF is now finally talking about shifting to tightly focused, neighborhood based lockdowns wherever any sign of renewed outbreaks happen. We now have adequate testing capacity and enough isolation facilities to make that possible. Without the testing capacity and the isolation facilities, we had no other choice than use the blunt instrument of a general quarantine to check the spread of the pandemic.

When China put Wuhan, with its population of 11 million people, under lockdown, we thought they were embarking on something impossible to do. Days later, Beijing included the entire province of Hubei in the lockdown order. That was even more incredible. But they got it done and, for weeks, kept new infections to zero.

When May 31 comes around, we would have kept the entire 12 million population of Metro Manila in some form of lockdown for longer than Wuhan was shut down. We actually accomplished a bigger feat: for weeks, we kept the entire island of Luzon under lockdown.

But we failed to dramatically bring down infections as they did in the case of Wuhan. We might have flattened the curve but no one will accuse us of crushing it – unless, of course, we buy into Secretary Duque’s theory that a first wave did happen with the three cases followed by a couple of weeks of zero infections.

That theory, however, has been mocked to the heavens. With zero testing capacity at that time, we had no way of tracking the spread of infections. Beyond the reach of testing, the virus was quietly spreading.

If we had not crushed the curve with ten weeks of community quarantine, we never will. For lack of resources or the genius required to quash the epidemic, the virus will be with us for a very long time.

We cannot afford to continue with this business of community quarantines for much longer. It is a sledgehammer drawn to smash a virus. It does play to what is perhaps our only advantage in this game: a surfeit of political will.

The longer community quarantines are maintained, the more irrecoverable our economy becomes. No state in history has been able to feed its people out of its pockets indefinitely.

In our case, state resources are exhausted. A vicious cycle has crept in: with the economy in suspension, government can raise no revenues. Without revenues, government cannot afford to subsidize its citizens.

Having exhausted state coffers, we now court a greater risk: we simply cannot afford a big second wave of infections. We do not have the hospital beds and the medical resources required to meet it. We do not have the war chest to impose a second round of lockdowns.

Davao mayor Sara Duterte said it best as her city transitioned to “general community quarantine.” She warned her people to either obey health protocols or prepare the P2 million required for hospitalizing Covid-19 cases.  

In a word, pass more responsibility to individuals to play their roles in containing infections.


We can only cry over spilt milk.

Our response to this pandemic might have been a hundred times more effective if we had developed a national identification system 25 years ago and built a government broadband system 15 years ago.

The national ID system would have made it easier for government to track its population, download subsidies digitally and accurately anticipate the health needs of citizens. The national broadband would have been very useful in preparing us for a post-pandemic world: enabling our public school system to quickly adapt to new methods of instruction, making possible work-from-home arrangements for the public sector and detailed coordination of the work of local governments.

Alas, we have neither. We do not have the means to deliver daily schoolwork for the millions of students now forced out of classrooms. The social amelioration program had to be executed by delivering tons of cash to local governments and then handing the money out to beneficiaries who line up for hours despite distancing protocols.

During this pandemic, the world mocked Japan’s antiquated office culture that inhibited work-from-home arrangements. With its strong technology sector, people joked that the Japanese would soon be inventing robots to carry their fax machines.

The world might have mocked us even more loudly if only they noticed government was delivering tons of cash to the desks of municipal mayors for distribution by hand. Talk of persistent antiquity. This is where our pre-modern politics left us.

Thailand’s government this week ordered its Digital Economy and Society Ministry to provide Internet connections to all underprivileged students in preparation for new modes of instruction in this pandemic age. Presumably, Thailand’s government has enough broadband capacity under its control.

The Thais seem to be thinking way ahead of us, organizing a Digital Economy and Society Ministry. By its very name, this ministry is tasked to oversee the transition of the entire economy and society to a digital future. The pandemic will surely cause the acceleration of such a transition.

Contrast that with our newly organized Department of Information and Communications Technology. By its very name, this agency appears intended principally to regulate technology players rather than prepare the larger society for the new modes of life in the digital age.

Over the course of the current health emergency, we heard very little from this agency now headed by a retired senator with legendary fondness for carrying an analog phone. An undersecretary’s resignation was accepted four months after he submitted it.

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