SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 10, 2020 - 12:00am

Let’s see… we’re now in what The Telegraph in the UK has described as “possibly the world’s longest and strictest coronavirus lockdown.”

Despite the lockdown, we now also have the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia, with 127,000 confirmed infections as of Saturday night, 67,117 recoveries and 2,209 deaths. We’ve topped Indonesia, which had 124,000 cases as of Saturday night with 79,306 recoveries, although their death toll is more than double ours at 5,658.

And because of the lockdown, we are now experiencing what analysts say is the worst economic contraction in the region, with gross domestic product plummeting by a worse-than-expected 16.5 percent in the second quarter.

The traditional economic lifesaver, the overseas Filipino worker, cannot be relied upon this time to keep the economy afloat. OFWs continue returning in droves after losing their jobs overseas due to the pandemic. Unemployment awaits most of them at home.

The lifesaver for public health care expenses, meanwhile, is embroiled in a corruption scandal in the middle of the pandemic. As for that famous promise to get rid of officials linked to even “a whiff of corruption,” it is applied selectively, with graft charges tepidly pursued. Several dismissed officials have even been recycled.

Clearly, there’s a wide room for improvement in our pandemic response.

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By most accounts, since the start of the pandemic, there have been spirited debates among administration officials on how to balance life and livelihoods.

Within our region, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam have shown that it’s possible to continue economic activities even in densely populated mega cities without economically crippling prolonged lockdowns.

But we’re no South Korea, Taiwan or Vietnam in managing a highly contagious and deadly disease with no vaccine or cure. And so, when the government gave in to the economic team and eased Metro Manila and neighboring areas into general community quarantine, the public health threat remained.

There are people who deliberately ignore the minimum COVID health protocols. And there are those who simply find it impossible to observe physical distancing and regular hand washing in cramped shanties with no piped water.

But I think most Filipinos are not pasaway, and most make an effort to comply with the health safety protocols. People are aware of the consequences of catching COVID-19. They know that even for the mild or asymptomatic cases, testing positive for SARS-coronavirus-2 poses the threat of infecting other members of the household, who might have comorbidities and might develop more serious infections.

COVID survivors have bemoaned discrimination not only against them but also against their household members, for those whose affliction became known in the neighborhood.

Like any illness, COVID treatment is costly. Beleaguered PhilHealth doesn’t cover everything. A 14-day quarantine is typical, but this could drag on for a month, and even up to 78 days, if it combines with other afflictions such as dengue. For daily wage earners, this can spell destitution.

Even for those above the poverty level, COVID is a costly illness. You need from three to five swab tests before you are cleared to return to society. That’s from about P1,900 per test (if you’re in Marikina) up to P11,000, with the average price now at P4,000. For the serious cases, people have an idea of how much it costs to be confined while on a ventilator in the intensive care unit of even a mid-priced hospital. The cost rises if you need to be intubated.

Perhaps the government can find a survivor who can talk about what it’s like to suffer from COVID as well as its financial costs. This was done in the case of AIDS / HIV, when people with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome talked about their illness in hopes of raising public awareness about the disease and the protocols for preventing infection.

The AIDS victims, whose struggles were chronicled until they succumbed to the disease, still suffered discrimination. But their life stories brought home the reality of the affliction and helped pave the way for relevant legislation on persons with HIV / AIDS.

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You can tell that people are avoiding COVID infection from the lackluster response to the gradual reopening of certain businesses.

There has been no rush, for example, to hair grooming establishments, especially for women, since we can afford to just let our hair grow long (or, in my case, I’ve learned to cut my own hair).

Yesterday I went to Makati’s central business district. It was depressingly empty and quiet on a Sunday. One mall demanded quarantine passes for entry. A salesclerk told me that sales were down particularly for their garments and footwear sections; people don’t want to try on clothes and shoes.

As a remedy, shop owners can provide disposable sheets that consumers must put on before fitting clothes and shoes. There’s also a disposable head cover, used in other countries so makeup won’t stain the clothes during fitting. This has been done for a long time in certain countries such as Japan. The first time I encountered it years ago I thought it was too much, but in the time of COVID it makes perfect sense.

The salesclerk told me that most of her colleagues are officially on leave – meaning their jobs are waiting for them once the situation improves. When the improvement will happen, of course, is the big question. How long can people wait jobless or underemployed? I don’t think those on leave are getting full pay, or getting paid at all, for doing nothing.

This is in fact a good time for shopping: it’s like there’s a great Metro Manila sale going on. Everywhere you turn, there are so many bargains of up to 70 percent markdowns, and buy-one-take-one offers.

Economists are saying that if we want to speed up our recovery, we should resume consumption if our purchasing power allows it. We’re being encouraged to buy from restaurants even if we don’t dine inside the premises.

Until we can overcome our fear of infection, however, people will shun places where they expect crowds. With the movements of children and grandparents restricted, families prefer to stay home.

If people feel reassured that there is efficient COVID testing and contact tracing, there will be much less aversion to shopping for non-essentials, dining in and getting a haircut.

It’s a public health crisis, and people want to see the health aspects dealt with decisively first.

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