‘Successful experiment’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

First, the good news. The pilot testing in Metro Manila of the new quarantine classification appears to be a “success” since its implementation starting Sept. 16. However, the not so good news is, the prevailing Alert Level 4 all over the national capital region (NCR) comprised of the 17 Metro Manila local government units (LGUs) will still remain in force until further notice despite this turnout of the new Alert Level System.

Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Chairman Benhur Abalos announced these in my Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum last Wednesday. The MMDA chairman admitted the present Alert Level 4 at the NCR would remain in effect until the end of this month.  With Alert Level 1 as the lowest and 5 as the highest, this alphanumeric system is used to indicate the severity of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases.

The Department of Health (DOH), headed by Secretary Francisco Duque, serves as the primary agency in charge of the new Alert System of COVID-19 cases all over the country. Duque sits as the co-chairman of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) – the policymaking body on the COVID responses of the government. As a member of the IATF, Abalos sits as the chairman of the Metro Manila Council (MMC) that decides as one for the entire 17 Mayors of the NCR.

Abalos disclosed the NCR Mayors observed the seeming “successful experiment” of the pilot test to the “effective use of granular lockdown” all over Metro Manila. From its root word “grain,” Abalos explained, the granular lockdown pinpoints with precision which areas should be sealed off to prevent the spread and further community transmissions of COVID-19 infection.

Based from the tally of COVID-19 active cases in Metro Manila, Abalos noted with optimism it dropped to 36,042 on September 19 from 40,112 active cases last September 15. Or this was the day before the enforcement of Alert Level 4 at NCR. “For me, maski one week pa lang ang ganda, it has been a successful experiment ngayon pa lang,” Abalos declared in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay Zoom Webinar.

The gradual reopening of some industries and activities Under Alert Level 4, while granular lockdowns are enforced, certain businesses and activities – particularly religious services, restaurants and personal care services like salons and barbershops – can accept customers and clients but should maintain only a 10-percent indoor capacity, which is exclusive for fully vaccinated persons, and a 30-percent outdoor capacity.

The MMDA chief credited the country’s unique system of “barangay” as proving to be effective in implementing the granular lockdowns.

As the smallest unit of government, barangay officials could easily identify their constituents, Abalos pointed out.

This enabled, Abalos explained, the “healthy population,” including the vaccinated persons to go out for work without being infected. Thus, he believed, the safety protocols prescribed at each Alert Levels protected the people while they went back to work. These perked up the economic activities at the NCR along with its neighbors in Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal, or the so-called NCR Plus that contribute more than a third of the country’s annual gross domestic product.

Previously classified from enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) down to the less restrictive general community quarantine (GCQ), the Alert Level System replaced these classifications. The ECQ – euphemism for hard lockdown – was twice implemented this year following the detection of “Delta” and other foreign variants that spiked COVID-19 cases at the entire NCR Plus. The lockdown restrictions have been blamed for the resulting economic woes in the country.

As of Monday, a total of 3,093 families – mostly from over 800 households – have been isolated by granular lockdowns in Metro Manila, according to the MMDA chairman. They are being given “ayuda” of food packs by their respective LGUs for the first week while “grocery packs” will be augmented by the national government.

Abalos rendered the same report to President Duterte that the COVID-19 cases in the metropolis have indeed been declining during the first five days of the Alert Level 4. The DOH tally, in fact, has been validated by the parallel statistical analysis of the independent Octa Research group, Abalos cited.

Abalos quoted Octa Research findings that the COVID-19 reproduction number of 1.9 in Metro Manila recorded the “peak” last August 15. A month before the Alert Level 4 was applied, he noted, it dropped to 1.03 as of latest data. “Once it reaches 1, mag-plateau na, talagang pababa na,” he said referring to the reproduction number, or the indicative number of people a COVID-19-positive person could infect another.

Abalos believed the decreasing trend of transmissions at NCR could also be attributed much to the increasing number of its residents getting protected through anti-COVID vaccines. Out of the 9.8 million adult Metro Manila residents qualified for COVID-19 jabs, the LGUs reported to the MMDA having vaccinated 8.52 million residents in the entire NCR. Abalos noted this is almost 87% of the 14-million total NCR population who got their first doses.

The vaccinated population in Metro Manila could reach to 89.77% by December when those who got AstraZeneca jabs with three-month gap get their second dose. Metro Manila LGUs have thus started preparing for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout to the rest of the population, initially with pre-registration for children of health care workers and teenagers with comorbidities.

With the additional deliveries to the country coming in later this year of about 60 million doses of various anti-COVID vaccines, this “successful experiment” at the NCR could very well replicated soon to the rest of the country.

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