Photo: Philippine News Agency
As citizens in Metro Manila and four provinces brace themselves for a week of hard lockdown and government frantically scrambles to shore up its pandemic defense, a government epidemiologist is proposing a longer lockdown.
The head of the Epidemiology Bureau of the Department of Health (DOH), Alethea de Guzman, said extending the lockdown to April 18 could lead to a considerable reduction in COVID-19 cases.
"The cases will go down slightly after ECQ but we are seeing that the cases could possibly rise again after ECQ is lifted. So one of the proposals of our experts is there may be a need to extend because that's when we will see a continued decrease in cases," she said in a press briefing at the Palace.
A medical expert interviewed on CNN Philippines also favored an extended lockdown, saying one week will not be enough to reduce the number of cases by 25 per cent, the target set by the DOH.
“I’m hoping that is enough, but realistically, if you look at the numbers, I don’t think it’s enough,” Dr. Jonas del Rosario, who is also the spokesman for the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), said.
To meet its target, government must impose a lockdown for at least two weeks or even extend it to four weeks, he added.
Earlier, the spokesman for the National Task Force (NTF), Retired Major General Restituto Padilla, said a lockdown extension in Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal - collectively known as NCR Plus - could happen if the surge in COVID-19 infections continue.
This warning is expected to fuel more anxiety and resentment among residents already weary from government restrictions which has affected not only daily routines but their livelihood.
In scenes recalling last year’s hard lockdown, frantic residents were clearing supermarket shelves ahead on the lockdown’s effectivity on March 29. Except for supermarkets, groceries, drug stores, and outlets performing essential services, all other business activities have been halted. A longer curfew - from 6pm to 5am - has been imposed, and thousands of policemen in battle fatigues man checkpoints and conduct street patrols.
The return to a hard lockdown came just after the country marked a year since government ordered millions of residents quarantined to stop the COVID-19 virus from spreading. The lockdown is now considered the longest in the world. It has exacted a heavy toll on the economy.
Early warnings unheeded
Independent researchers have been proposing a two-week lockdown since March 12, when their data first captured the upward tick in new cases. It was billed as a “short circuit” move to stop the unprecedented increase in infections.
“We never saw this rate of increase in Metro Manila throughout the entire pandemic period,” a representative from the OCTA Research Group said in an interview.
Government, however, initially rejected the proposal, calling it unnecessary and drastic considering government’s excellent handling of the pandemic.
Not only was the assessment way off the mark, but it also reflected complacency and an inflated opinion of government’s competence.
Findings and suggestions from independent experts, often dismissed as fear-mongering, have generally been ignored by government officials handling the pandemic response. Even after more than a year, government has remained indifferent to suggestions from outsiders.
Last year, when an independent research group from the University of the Philippines projected an increase in cases in some areas and recommended selective restrictions, the Palace urged them to communicate their findings privately.
The Palace even belittled the capabilities of the group, saying it only had “one or two epidemiologists” while the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) had more experts.
The forecasts of the group turned out to be more accurate than government’s.
Systemic changes needed
With hospitals again overwhelmed by cases - photos on social media showed patients being treated in parking lots and other open spaces - the Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC) Philippines warned that the country will again experience these nerve-wracking surges unless government adopts “systemic changes” in its pandemic response.
“The lockdown is an important but a mere temporary measure to stop the movement of the people and stop the transmission of the virus so that our hospitals will not be overrun,” Dr. Pauline Convocar, president of the Philippine College of Emergency Medicine, said during an online press conference.
“Although some reforms have been made, there are still a lot of changes needed so that cases will not surge the moment we reopen the economy. If we do not do these, we will keep going back to this situation,” she added.
Among their proposals are creating a central contact tracing data repository, ensuring compliance with health protocols, and upscaling vaccination. They also urged government to strictly enforce the priority list for the vaccines.
“We urge the government to hold accountable anyone who will be proven to have violated this plan in order to serve as an example that there is punishment for those who will jump the line,” she said.
Under government’s vaccine priority list, the country’s health workers will receive the first shots, followed by senior citizens, and indigents. But local officials and even a former movie star have been reported receiving vaccine shots ahead of those in the list.
The World Health Organization (WHO) had earlier warned that failure to follow the priority list may force the facility managing the distribution of donated vaccines to stop its deliveries and demand payment.
“Every day we see the suffering of the sick and the effect of the pandemic not only on the people’s health but their livelihood. The reality is, we can only reopen the economy if we already have systems in place to control COVID-19,” she said.
‘With shutdowns, there is a big trade off with lives and livelihoods. You will hurt livelihoods but you will save some lives. But testing, tracing, you can get a double boost, you contain the disease and also boost the economy because you create greater confidence’
The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) shared Condovar’s views.
According to Benedicto Yujuico, PCCI president, government needs to intensify COVID-19 testing and tracing instead of resorting to lockdowns.
“Lockdown is not the answer," he told ANC.
"The Philippines has had the longest lockdown in the world, our GDP (Gross Domestic Product) dropped the most. You can see from there that lockdown is not the answer. Other countries that did not do the lockdown, their GDP did not drop that much but they’re recovering now,” he said.
The over-reliance on lockdowns has also caught the attention of the World Bank. At a virtual press conference, Aaditya Mattoo, the agency’s chief economist for East Asia and Pacific, said the lockdown strategy “has imposed a big cost on the economy without delivering a commensurate benefit in terms of containment of the disease.”
Any recovery would be dependent on changes and improvements in government’s pandemic response.
“With shutdowns, there is a big trade off with lives and livelihoods. You will hurt livelihoods but you will save some lives. But testing, tracing, you can get a double boost, you contain the disease and also boost the economy because you create greater confidence,” Mattoo said.
A World Bank report also noted that among countries in the region, only the Philippines experienced the sharpest contraction in GDP.
“The contraction reflected an uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak combined with strict nationwide lockdowns and mobility restrictions, a succession of natural disasters, and delays in budget execution which weighed on public investment,” the World Bank said. - JS
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