Let’s not allow Covid-19 to devastate the poor

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ON March 10, Tomas Pueyo published a widely read article dubbed “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now.” Some take aways from the article: The coronavirus is coming to you. It’s coming at an exponential speed: gradually, and then suddenly. It’s a matter of days, maybe a week or two. When it does, your health-care system will be overwhelmed. Your fellow citizens will be treated in the hallways. Exhausted healthcare workers will break down. Some will die. They will have to decide which patient gets the oxygen and which one dies. The only way to prevent this is through social distancing today. Not tomorrow. Today. That means keeping as many people home as possible, starting now.

A few days later, he published a sobering second article: “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance.” His summary: “Strong coronavirus measures today should only last a few weeks, there shouldn’t be a big peak of infections afterwards, and it can all be done for a reasonable cost to society, saving millions of lives along the way. If we don’t take these measures, tens of millions will be infected, many will die, along with anybody else that requires intensive care, because the health-care system will have collapsed.”

President Duterte placed the whole of Luzon under “enhanced community quarantine” (ECQ) on March 16 following unsuccessful measures to contain the virus by sealing Metro Manila’s borders. “Upon further study of worldwide trends and measures and the need for extreme caution during such a time as this, I have come to the conclusion that stricter measures are necessary. I can’t go into a guessing game. I have to act,” the President said, explaining his decision to place Luzon under quarantine until April 13.

Entering the third week of the Luzon-wide quarantine, the scenario looks grim. We can’t see anything that would trigger the lifting of the lockdown. Infections keep rising, but we still don’t know the prevalence of Covid-19 in our communities. Dr. Jomar Rabajante of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Physics at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños predicts that Metro Manila’s epidemic will peak in mid-April, when there could be in excess of 2,500 cases in a single day.

That’s a grim scenario. Given the magnitude of the problems created by this pandemic, the national government needs all the help it can muster. Last week, Dr. Jesus Lim Arranza amplified in his column the appeal of exporters to the government to include a member of the business sector in the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases to ensure that investor welfare is considered in the crafting of lockdown policies (See, “Exporters press for business sector representative in IATF,” in the BusinessMirror, March 25, 2020).

On March 29, some Cabinet members and private-sector leaders sat down together to discuss the effects and efficacy of the Luzon-wide ECQ. They want to know what will trigger the lifting of the lockdown? As the minutes of the meeting show, there were no easy answers, although priorities were identified: We need to flatten the curve; we need to feed the poor; we need to avoid economic collapse; we still need to observe social distancing; another lockdown will be more damaging, although there’s the possibility to extend the ECQ for at least two more weeks.

It may not be the silver bullet, so to speak, but public-private cooperation during the Covid-19 pandemic is of utmost importance. Our people understand the need to stay at home to prevent more infections, but they need to eat. Government and private businesses must work hand in hand to feed the poor. Food riots have started in Italy. We want to prevent social unrest among our people, especially our poor workers who can’t do any economic activity because of the lockdown.

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