FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

All of us are exhausted in this seemingly unending battle against COVID-19.

Everyone’s patience is wearing thin. We saw that in Harry Roque’s outburst last Thursday during a meeting with doctors.

Things came to a head earlier. The IATF decided to return the NCR to GCQ with granular lockdowns. Hours before the shift has supposed to happen, the decision was reversed. NCR was to remain in MECQ status. Everyone was caught in a lurch.

It turns out the Metro Manila mayors asked for clarity about the new strategy, particularly the alert level system for deciding which areas will be locked down and which will be allowed to open up. Those details had not been worked out. It was then the decision was taken to postpone the shift.

The new strategy required more manpower from the local governments to be deployed. Neighborhoods with high infection rates had to be sealed off and checkpoints set up to enforce restrictions. The local governments were simply not ready to do that.

Furthermore, the new strategy needed to be clearly communicated to the public. That could not be done unless the operational details are threshed out. Yesterday news broke that the IATF had finally arrived at the guidelines for the “pilot implementation” of the new strategy in the NCR.

Since the start of this pandemic, we have pursued what can be called a Zero-Virus strategy. Under this strategy, the entire national effort will be akin to that of a pest control team. The goal was to come in and eradicate the enemy.

The experience of the past 18 months tells us this could not be a sustainable strategy. Only Australia and New Zealand, apart from us, still maintain this strategy. When one new infection was detected in New Zealand some weeks back, the whole country was locked down. Similarly, large parts of Australia remain in lockdown.

Meanwhile, nearly all countries in Europe, along with the US, have opened up their economies even in the face of high infection rates driven by the Delta variant. They have clearly abandoned the pest control strategy and are finding new ways of coexisting with the plague.

France and several other European countries have adopted what may be called the “Macron Doctrine.” Under this doctrine, preferential treatment will be given the vaccinated. They may go to bars and restaurants. They may travel freely. Only the unvaccinated will be restricted. By choosing to remain unvaccinated, they also choose to cause others harm.

In the US, facing rising rates of infection and hospitalization, President Biden announced this week a series of measures to force people to get vaccinated. All federal employees will now be required to get vaccinated. Companies with 100 or more employees will mandate vaccination or subject their people to weekly tests. Those who fail will be heavily fined.

In all countries, there are pockets of people who refuse to get vaccinated either for partisan reasons, defiance of what science clearly tells us or because they subscribe to some insane conspiracy theory. This has caused what Biden calls the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” They cause the persistence of infections that bring harm to others.

Those who refuse vaccination even where it is freely available ought not to be given the same privileges as those who are vaccinated. In the same manner, those who are vaccinated should be given greater leeway to move about and mingle. This is the gist of the “Macron Doctrine.”

We have spent 18 months under various degrees of community quarantines. Still, infections continue to surge. Last Thursday, we posted another record high in daily infections, notwithstanding tight restrictions.

Government, the IATF particularly, is under intense pressure from all sides. In that incident where Harry Roque lost his cool, doctors were demanding a “time-out,” returning the NCR to ECQ status. For most of our doctors, preventing our health care system from becoming overwhelmed should be the preeminent, if not exclusive, objective of our pandemic strategy.

Theirs is not the only voice that should inform our strategy. The business groups and our economic managers are warning that prolonging the blanket restrictions on movement will deeply scar our domestic economy. Ordinary people who have to work to earn a daily wage also prefer relaxation of the quarantines.

All these other voices are putting pressure on government as well. They are warning that the damage to livelihood might become permanent if we continue with the old strategy. The virus will not go away anytime soon. We cannot sacrifice livelihood in the hope of eradicating the virus. We will have to trust the vaccination program will yield enough population protection to enable us to open up economic activities.

The “granular lockdowns” strategy seems to be a compromise between the contending viewpoints. The community quarantines will be simplified into ECQ and GCQ. It becomes the call of the local governments to restrict movements as infection levels require.

What will be enforced in a few days is experimental in nature. It may work or it may not. The IATF thinks it is worth the risk of trying it out.

If it does not work, then we all return to the old community quarantine classification system – even if this is not economically sustainable.

If it works, then a new horizon is opened. We can continue fine-tuning the alert levels and operations responses to them. As we do that, we will basically re-strategize our approach to this pandemic.

We cannot win using the old approach. We will only force our economy to deteriorate until collapse.

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