FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - June 11, 2020 - 12:00am

It might seem the health crisis has passed. Most checkpoints have been removed and our streets are as choked as they have ever been.

Everywhere, there is quarantine fatigue. People are raring to go out and mingle with friends. Businesses are trying to clamber back to some sort of profitability. 

But the fact is the pandemic is continuing, gathering steam and touring the world. The number of infections continue rising and the death toll mounts. 

The epicenter of this pandemic has merely shifted from Europe to the US and now to South America. The number of confirmed cases worldwide passed the seven million mark and over 406,000 deaths are attributed to the coronavirus. In the US, which leads the world in the number of cases and deaths, the pandemic has taken about 112,000 lives. 

We now know more and more about this highly transmissible virus as we fight it. But what we know is still limited. There is no widely accepted treatment for the infected and a vaccine is at best many months away. 

We reconciled with the fact that this particular virus will remain with us for a long time. It is not mutating – something that is both good and bad. Because it is relatively constant, it is easier to design a vaccine against it. But it is as infectious as it has been. 

A decision on the status of quarantine restrictions in the NCR should be made any time now. The public is expecting further relaxation of restrictions on movement and business activities.

The relaxation might seem incongruous. Over the past few days, we saw an uptick in the number of cases reported. But this is due to expanded testing rather than an actual worsening of infections. The daily record of deaths attributed to COVID-19 has been in the single digits for weeks.

We have flattened the curve. We have not crushed it. We cannot let down our guard.

When our repatriated migrant workers were allowed to return to their home provinces, some of them ended up bringing in the virus to communities that were heretofore free of infection. As we relax restrictions, we are likely to see some dispersal of infections to the provinces even as we see the volume of infections decline in the NCR.

The infection picture will likely show a general decline but a broader spread. It should be easier to contact-trace infected persons if there are only a handful per community. That seems an easier thing to do that contact-trace hundreds of infected persons crowding in the metropolitan area.

This new situation requires refinement of our strategy. Local governments in the provinces have to bear a greater responsibility policing their communities for infections and making arrangements for their isolation and treatment. In the NCR, the local governments are empowered to lock down neighborhoods seeing an outbreak of infections. 

The whole effort must then be increasingly decentralized. 

At the outset, the national response was highly centralized. The DOH directed the response from its headquarters. The agency set standards and for too long jealously guarded the monopoly of its laboratories. This was until the Philippine Red Cross, a number of private corporations and local governments insisted on building their own testing facilities.

Excessive centralization is the reason why testing was inadequate and tested persons had to wait an eternity to get their results. Now we have allowed a variety testing methods to be used and molecular laboratories have mushroomed nationwide to process tests. 

Imaginably, it will be a challenge for the DOH to compile reports, verify them and report the aggregate to the public. The agency must try to do a better job of it.


Tomorrow’s commemoration of Independence Day will likely be the most muted ever. That is not necessarily bad.

Once we had grand parades that featured our military’s unimpressive hardware for all to marvel at. That has long fallen out of fashion.

Also falling out of fashion are the verbose speeches about the importance of self-determination and national identity. Those speeches fetishized nationhood and glorified self-reliance. They are relics from the time we needed to throw off the colonial yoke and attempt to govern ourselves.

They should ring a bit hollow in this age where interdependence and solidarity across borders are more urgent. Old school nationalism is of little use when we need multilateralism to deal with the challenges facing humanity. The old rhetoric of nationalism offers no solutions to defeating a pandemic, arresting global warming or cleaning up our oceans.

Nationalism, it has been said, is the refuge of scoundrels. It is the ideology of state in countries that needed desperately to be subordinated by the native elites. It offers our people very little instruction about how to navigate a borderless world.

The distinction might seem slight but it is crucial: nationalism must eventually be displaced by the discourse of patriotism.

Patriotism is not flag-worship or an exercise in waving myths about our racial identity. It is about urging citizens to do what is necessary to make our communities more beneficial to the individual and our governance more effective in empowering people. 

We require a new civics for a new age. This requires weaving the ethics of individual competence with that of cooperation. This should be more pragmatic and less romantic. Instead of needlessly fretting about self-determination, we should be worrying about the functionality of the institutions we nourish.

We are moving towards a new normal in our political discourse. A muted Independence Day celebration will help in this transition.

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