SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

People joked about it last week, after the government announced that the physical distancing rule in public transport would be reduced from one meter to 0.75.

How would it be enforced? It’s easy on the trains, since the seats and floors have visual cues for passengers. But what about buses and jeepneys? Would the distancing enforcers bring tape measures?

That’s exactly what they did – after the order was suspended and the one-meter rule was restored. With public utility vehicle (PUV) operators already getting used to more passengers under the 0.75-meter rule, there was concern that they would resist a return to the one-meter distancing and the consequent fewer passengers.

And so members of the police Highway Patrol Group boarded buses last week, armed with meter sticks, to ensure the return to the one-meter rule. In buses that broke the rule, some passengers were ordered to get off by the HPG.

On the first day of the return to the one-meter distancing, drivers who broke the rule were merely reprimanded or given a warning by the HPG because, let’s face it, the situation was pretty confusing for everyone.

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Cabinet members directly involved in the pandemic response were openly clashing on the issue. On Sept. 11, the Department of Transportation announced that the one-meter physical distancing rule in railway and PUV services would be reduced to 0.75 effective Sept. 14. The DOTr said the move was approved by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases or IATF.

Curiously, the vice chairman of the IATF, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, said there was no such approval. This was disputed by presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who said the move was approved at a meeting of the IATF, with no objections raised. The IATF chairman himself, Health Secretary Francisco Duque, whose department opposed the move, said he was not present at the meeting.

Members of the University of the Philippines’ OCTA Research team weighed in on the issue, warning that the reduction of the distancing rule could stop the flattening of the COVID transmission curve, which is just starting after six difficult and economically ruinous months of lockdowns. The OCTA team had been previously consulted by the IATF, but in this issue, its input was given only after the decision had been made.

On Sept. 14, the 0.75-meter distancing rule was implemented. On Sept. 17, as Año backed by Duque said the one-meter rule was “non-negotiable,” Transport Secretary Arthur Tugade suspended the new rule and restored the one-meter requirement.

That was when the HPG members whipped out their meter sticks.

As our contact tracing capability remains underwhelming, it would be nearly impossible to determine if those three days of easing the distancing rule in mass transport aggravated COVID transmission.

Last Saturday, President Duterte put the issue to rest, two days ahead of his regular Monday report to the nation on the COVID response: the one-meter distancing stays.

*      *      *

Tugade had defended the easing of the distancing rule, which was reportedly endorsed by the Cabinet economic cluster to make life easier for commuters as more businesses are allowed to reopen. He said the move was suspended because he did not want people to think the Cabinet was divided in the pandemic response.

That, however, was exactly what it looked like. People asked: who’s in charge?

Año, a two-time COVID survivor and vice chair of the National Task Force Against COVID-19, and Duque who chairs the IATF had been sidelined in the decision-making on such a critical move.

To be fair, this is an unprecedented pandemic and many governments are groping their way in their responses. COVID-19 itself is evolving, with some patients suffering from serious effects long after testing negative for the coronavirus, and immunity seemingly short-lived in certain cases.

It’s understandable that the government may change its mind on critical decisions such as the start of the new school year or the reopening of businesses such as gyms, barbershops and salons. Such things have also happened in other countries, as governments monitor the virus transmission in different economic sectors.

But in some issues, it simply looks like there is a dangerous lack of coordination among officials tasked to deal with the pandemic.

*      *      *

One example was the requirement for a barrier for riding pillion on a motorcycle. Couples complied – but many emblazoned their barriers with messages decrying its silliness. An enterprising guy invested in designing and mass-producing a nifty and reasonably priced barrier, only to lament that he stood to lose about P1 million after the government rescinded the requirement.

There is a continuing debate over the proposal for a sweeping ban on home quarantine. This time, Año is at odds with the Department of Health. Año cites too many instances of coronavirus transmission at home. DOH officials, on the other hand, say the country’s health care system – despite significant ramping up in the past months – could be overwhelmed if even mild and asymptomatic cases would all be required to undergo quarantine outside their homes.

Early in the pandemic, local government officials railed against the Balik-Probinsiya program, suspended and replaced with the Hatid Tulong, which they blamed for bringing COVID to their localities. Health officials were also ignored when they warned against using the rapid antibody test for COVID screening. The RAT was blamed for the spread of the virus in offices after the lockdowns were eased.

Even in the creation of special bodies to respond to the pandemic, the delineation of functions and decision-making can be confusing.

Let’s see: there’s the IATF co-chaired by Duque and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles; the National Task Force Against COVID-19 or NTF chaired by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana; and a National Action Plan Against COVID-19 with a “chief implementer,” Carlito Galvez, and a deputy who is also the COVID “testing czar,” Vince Dizon.

The IATF created the NTF after approval of the National Action Plan.

There is a contact tracing czar, Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong; an isolation czar, Public Works Secretary Mark Villar; and a treatment czar, Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega. How is the division of labor, and who has the final word in their respective areas of responsibility – the czar, the NTF or the IATF?

People are thoroughly discombobulated, scratching their heads, wondering what the real score is and asking, “Ano ba talaga, kuya?”

After this confusion over the distancing rule, officials should get their act together. If they want us to heal as one, they should also speak and move as one.



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