"Do we revive an economy so limp, or flatten a contagion curve that was acted upon too late?"


We are between a rock and a hard place, between the devil and the deep blue sea.

In another 10 days, the extended lockdown over NCR, the rest of Luzon, and many other major cities and provinces in the Visayas and Mindanao will end.  Government, particularly the President no less, will have to make a decision on whether or not to continue with the lockdown that has paralyzed economic activity and caused problems of hunger and basic survival among three-fourths of the population.

The public health officials would likely be for the continuation of the Enhanced Community Quarantine.  As it is, we are far from flattening the curve; neither have we reached the peak of the coronavirus contagion in the country.  The simple truth is we had to take the extreme measure of lockdown because we did not act quickly or properly enough.  In Tagalog, “natulog sa pansitan” for a loooong time.

Unlike other countries in the region, our health officials failed to do what was right.  We did not close our borders early enough.  We did not test early enough.  We did not even use the machinery of government, e.g., the police, the LGUs, even the military, to track down those who may have been in contact with the early cases of infection. 

For more than a month, our public health officials preened over an amazingly, if unbelievably low number of cases, frozen at three, then five.  During that period, we did not source enough test kits, not even PPEs for our health workers.  Now we are scrambling to get test kits and PPEs, but we are competing for the precious, scarce resources that Donald Trump’s US of A is trying to corner, because the “licensed” American prevaricator was in denial for the longest time.

And the numbers keep rising.  Intelligent and effective mayors like Rex Gatchalian of Valenzuela, Benjie Magalong of Baguio, Marcy Teodoro of Marikina, Francis Zamora of San Juan, Abby Binay of Makati, and Gov. Johnvic Remulla of Cavite are now realizing that the DOH upon which they were relying upon is simply unreliable; that the community transmission, especially among their poor communities, has become so widespread.  They are discovering the sad truth only now precisely because for the longest time, neither testing nor tracing was done efficiently, extensively and effectively by our public health officials.  There must be many more LGU officials who have done much to protect their constituency, but being far removed here in Taiwan, I can only name a few that the media have reported.

The economic impact has been terrible: the economy is down on its feet.  If the situation protracts while we wait for “science” to declare us safe, our economy will turn belly up.  People will be starving.  Government resources will be stretched beyond capability to act, and then the danger of anarchy prevailing becomes a nightmarish possibility.

Frustrated and resigned NEDA Director General Ernie Pernia put it very succinctly when asked why he gave up in the midst of battle: “when the orchestra isn’t well orchestrated, there seems to be a problem.” 

Indeed, how can you play a symphony when the members of the orchestra are befuddled and confused, with the conductor, the seemingly “indispensable” Secretary of Health, plays contra tiempo to science and sense?

 Ten days isn’t a long time to come up with a choice, or even a compromised decision.

Hungry people deprived of daily sustenance cannot wait for the curve to flatten, which isn’t likely until perhaps July or August, if ever.  Business, whether big or small or medium-scale, cannot survive the fall-out of no productivity, no operations, no logistics and no income.  And government coffers will dry up no matter how Sonny Dominguez and Ben Diokno try to squeeze revenues from an idled economy.

Perhaps the suggestion of Joey Concepcion, even Secretary Año is the only middle ground possible—instead of enhancing the lockdown, select the places where community quarantine would continue, and allow the lifeblood of our economy to flow even in a measured manner.

“When we say ‘barangay quarantine’, you don’t start by locking down a certain city, you start by considering quarantines for barangays that have high infection rates,” said Presidential Adviser Concepcion.

But whether even that would work without increasing the numbers of the sick would depend on whether the delayed supplies coming mostly from China would arrive in time, and whether a health system strained by three months of unbelievable pressure can yet deliver the needed results.

It is not as if the pandemic, being “novel” is reason not to know which way to act.  Our nearest neighbor to the north, Taiwan, which is also nearest to the origin of the virus, was in far worse shape at the beginning of the year.  But they acted fast.  They tested; they traced; they used an efficient health system to treat the tested and traced patients, all in a transparent manner communicated each day effectively, to their people and to the world.

There was a model in Taiwan, and even elsewhere in our continent, but we minded them not, perhaps because “politics” and “diplomacy,” as stated by our health secretary (for fear of China?), was deemed more important than science and sense until the situation had become too impossible without quarantining population and economy.

The Senate through 15 of its members, or even 18 if you add the Liberals, including its president, signed a resolution asking the health secretary to resign for negligence and ineffectiveness. And yet he “soldiers on” in this “third world war,” he says, because the appointing authority has been reluctant to let go, yet.

I recall a statement earlier released anonymously but later attributed to former Antipolo City congressman and former ranking police officer Gen. Romeo Acop a month ago, appealing to “those who are physically, intellectually and morally weak and incapable of giving your best, we hope you find the courage and patriotism to step aside and let others more capable to do the job.”

But enough of that.  The Health secretary has sought refuge from the President who still “maintains trust and confidence” as the recycled spokesman, my friend Harry Roque, averred.  So let us hope and pray he delivers.

The State and our President are in such a difficult situation, of having to choose between reviving an economy so limp, or “flattening” a contagion curve that was acted upon too late, and shows no clear promise of light at the end of the 45-day tunnel.

His is a very heavy cross to bear.

* * *

We thank the government of Taiwan for donating 300,000 face masks which arrived last Wednesday, and has been turned over by TECO and MECO to the Department of Health at the airport cargo terminal.

The undersecretary of Health who accepted the donation, along with directors of the Office of Civil Defense, was even reluctant to have her photograph taken with MECO and TECO officials because of the “One China Policy,” and agreed only when the OCD officials volunteered proudly.  She did have her photo taken, but only when a box was reversed so the marking “Taiwan can help” would not be seen.

Afraid of China?  Surely the Chinese ambassador does not even know her, nor would be so crass as to complain about a humanitarian gesture by its “political pariah.”

* * *

Over the past weeks, we grieve whenever persons close to us die because of the COVID pestilence, even as we continually thank the Almighty each day that we are mercifully spared.

While we are happy that persons we hold in high esteem, such as Education Secretary Liling Briones and former Prime Minister Cesar Virata have been spared by the deathly specter, we are at a loss when someone like Cathy Bello,  former colleague in the Senate staff and a dear friend, succumbs to the death sentence of the virus.   To her family, particularly Secretary Bebot Bello, our profound condolences.

Though he had a lingering illness not related to the virus, we also grieve for the departure into the Great Beyond of our good friend and legal counsel, Secretary Jun Factoran.  Jun and I shared many happy moments over lunch and other matters at the Thursday Group hosted by Manny Zamora, and before that, in the FSGO headed by the late Sen. Ting Paterno.

Topics: Lito Banayo , Dilemma , Enhanced Community Quarantine , coronavirus disease 2019 , COVID-19
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