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‘Saving the economy or saving lives: an unnecessary choice’

Titon Mitra, Resident Representative, UNDP Philippines (The Philippine Star) - August 28, 2020 - 12:00am

(Second of two parts)

Currently, Metro Manila’s healthcare capacity in terms of testing, tracing, and isolation is operating at what FASSSTER have noted is 19% capacity. However, if this is increased to 33%, the number of days it takes to identify and isolate positive individuals improves from 5 days to 3 days; and if there was at least a 50% compliance with wearing face masks and face shields, this would make GCQ the least costly lockdown type.

From a health perspective, we see an immediate reduction in the transmission rate. If we were to fast forward to 31 October 2020, we would see that a GCQ with a healthcare capacity at 33% and strong compliance with social distancing and wearing of facemasks and shields, can contribute to flattening the curve. Metro Manila would then see only an increase in 661 cases between August 31 – October 31, as opposed to 51,480 with the capacity remaining at just 19%. From an economic perspective, approximately 32.6 billion pesos would be saved by the end of August. One could expect this number to improve as the virus transmission rate is arrested and the economy is allowed to open up further.

As indicated above, while an MECQ or ECQ can certainly slow down the rate of infection and deaths for the period that they are applied, our projections show that they are imperfect, devastatingly costly, and rather blunt policy instruments for stemming the COVID-19 surge in cases. Major gains in reducing the cost to the economy and health of the citizens could come from effective action related to enhanced testing, contact tracing, and isolation, coupled with compliance of the general public to health guidance. Success also hinges on proactiveness. This means acting quickly and in a very targeted way based on strong data, identifying emerging hotspots, and taking appropriate measures.

The modelling we have undertaken and the option we have suggested can in no way compensate for the immense pain and physical and emotional exhaustion felt by individuals and families as they confront the real tragedies of losing lives and losing jobs. We know very well that there is a risk of appearing callous in trying to simplify complex problems to models and curves. But robust data analysis can help us make difficult choices and help us avoid making unnecessary binary decisions about whether to drive the economy into the ground while saving thousands of lives or revive the economy while sacrificing thousands of lives. There need not be an either-or trade-off; the numbers show that there is a possible middle way.

(The modelling above will be regularly updated by The PINTIG Lab and FASSSTER and provided to the IATF in the form of a policy note on a monthly basis. The findings from the next analysis is due in the last week of September and will be published on the UNDP Philippines website.)

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Titon Mitra is the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme in the Philippines.

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