FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - August 22, 2020 - 12:00am

It is a shuddering thought: Could we have overdone this business of across-the-board lockdowns?

?Scientists are now telling us remnants of the virus that caused the great “Spanish” flu pandemic of 1918-1921 continue to persist a century hence, erupting in smaller scale flu outbursts during the colder months. That virus, believed to have killed tens of millions around the world, was never completely eradicated. It was merely suppressed.

?Even if we now have regular flu shots to mitigate infections, the virus survives. It continues to circulate even as we have learned to coexist with it. Nevertheless, it takes thousands of lives every year.

?There was reason to be fearful about SARS-Covid-2, the new coronavirus causing the current pandemic. It appears more transmissible and deadlier than the virus that caused the “Spanish” flu. I put that in quotes because it did not actually originate in Spain. The pandemic was in progress while World War I raged. News of it was censored everywhere except in Spain, a county that maintained neutrality during that war.

?The novel coronavirus now wreaking havoc across the globe will probably circulate and resurge for years to come. We see its capacity to resurge in Europe today as well as in New Zealand and Australia.

?In the best scenario, a vaccine could begin to be widely deployed by this time next year. Even then, the various vaccines now under development are on the average expected to be 50 percent to 60 percent effective. That is on the optimistic side.

?What this means is that this virus will continue circulating for years to come, perhaps even for the rest of our lives. Laboratory studies show the virus is not losing potency. It does indicate some minor mutation but that results only in better transmissibility.

?These laboratory studies do not bring good news.

?In March, after a lockdown was imposed, I wrote in this space that we should write off the entire year. At that time, the preliminary assessment really sounded pessimistic. From what we know now, it was even optimistic.

?We are on record as having imposed the longest and toughest lockdown in the region. Still, we have the highest case numbers among the ASEAN countries. We have exported infected persons to New Zealand, Taiwan and Hong Kong – jurisdictions that very nearly stamped out the virus.

?If it is any consolation, we have a lower death tally than Indonesia. But that is only because our large and populous neighbor might not have tested enough to produce a higher (and more accurate) denominator.

?Over the past few months, as we find out more about the nuances of this virus, our medical professionals have managed to better care for the infected, symptomatic persons.  Perhaps, over the next few months, there could be advances in therapeutics that will allow our hospitals to better treat even severe cases.

There will surely be advances in testing methods forthcoming. A new saliva test that costs about P15 for the kit and P15,000 for the machines to process them will produce results in minutes.

?These advances in testing technologies will enable all countries to better track and trace infections. Nevertheless, public health strategies will continue to be the foremost concern for most governments.

?It is truly distressing that over three-quarters of a million people have died because of this virus. That tally will continue to rise in the coming period.

?Even more distressing is the latest World Bank estimate that the pandemic has pushed 100 million into absolute poverty. Poverty kills too.

?The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) says our public health strategy has not been matched by an economic strategy. Therefore, the group volunteers for a seat in the IATF.

?Banking giant HSBC issued a rather dim forecast for the Philippine economy. It notes the 0.2 percent contraction in the first quarter and foresees a 7 percent contraction in the second quarter (our own official number is -16.5 percent). The bank sees the economy contracting 4.3 percent in the third quarter and 3.9 percent in the fourth quarter.

?In all, the economy is seen to contract by 3.85 percent for the whole of 2020. That dwarfs the contraction we experienced because of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

From the way things are going, even this dim assessment might be conservative. NEDA projects an even worse annual performance of up to 4.3 percent contraction.

NEDA breaks down the economic damage according to the most harmed sectors. The arts, entertainment and recreation will have a revenue loss of 82.3 percent. Travel, hotel and restaurants will lose 81.9 percent of revenues. Technical repair services will lose 77 percent and educational services will suffer 76.8 percent decline. Construction activities will lose 74.8 percent of revenues.

DOLE estimates 4.9 million workers have lost their jobs and unemployment is now at an all-time high of 17.7 percent. It is estimated that at least 40 percent of our micro-, small- and medium-enterprises will not make it through this health crisis. These enterprises employ the bulk of our labor force.

One congresswoman estimates the total cumulative loss of the economy is about P2.4 trillion. Bayahinan II will not compensate for that loss. It should not.

The biggest loss is probably on consumer confidence. Our economy is consumption driven. Nothing could harm it more than a loss of consumer confidence.

Managers of this health crisis acknowledge that wholesale lockdowns are not sustainable as a strategy. To be sure, that strategy (whatever its merits might be) produced an economic landscape that resembles Beirut after that huge explosion.

Someone should tell us how we clear the rubble and rise from this.

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