PH sorely unprepared for COVID-19 crisis

On March 12, with bated breath, people waited for an expected announcement of a lockdown for Metro Manila. It came shortly after dinnertime, leaving more questions and anxieties than assurances.
Since Jan. 30, when news of the first confirmed COVID-19 patient in the Philippines broke, Filipinos have been waiting for President Duterte to take matters firmly in hand. We hoped he would make firm, coherent decisions and solid announcements to ease people’s anxiety and rally everyone together to face the challenges.
As I write this, I can’t shake off the feeling our President’s pronouncements just added to the anxiety manifold. His March 9 press conference with leading officials and mayors of Metro Manila spelled DISASTER. It showed that he was hardly aware of the situation’s gravity. He appeared incapacitated and talked in disjointed incoherent sentences, as if he could not think straight. This worsened apprehensions. If he was supposed to be on top of the COVID-19 containment, then we are in serious trouble.
We have had all of February and part of March to prepare, yet, we don’t even have adequate testing kits. The University of the Philippines National Institute of Health developed a testing kit that is just 20 percent of the cost of imported ones. But the kit was largely ignored by the Department of Health due to bureaucracy. The scientists were forced to go to the Food and Drug Administration and after a one-month delay, the FDA gave its blessing for the kit to be tested.
Because of the expensive imported test kits, the numbers of COVID-19 infected people are sorely understated. Many of the poor who may have been exposed refuse to seek help or consultation. Add to these numbers the Pogo workers, many of whom are here illegally. They would rather self-medicate and bank on their youth to get over their infection. But, how many poor Filipinos who serve them have been exposed unaware?
It will not be surprising if we see an exponential rise in the number of cases in the coming weeks.
Junket in the midst of crisis
People are blaming the Department of Health for its inadequate communication and delay in transmitting information. I believe the DOH has been trying to do its best in the midst of this crisis, but they are not trained in communication strategies.
The one government department that is a total failure at its job is the Presidential Communication and Operations Office (PCOO).
A short and frequent infomercial on how to fight the virus, aired in different dialects, could have helped a lot. There are ways to help DOH get the message across: about personal hygiene being more important than face masks, the virus is not airborne, social distancing is important, how to avoid the risk of getting exposed and others.
But, PCOO has to get its priorities straight first: such as skipping junkets in times of crisis.
Adding insult to injury, it is terribly insensitive for their top personnel to take a junket trip to Europe, allegedly for an info road show on press freedom.
While DOH and the Filipino people are busy facing the challenges of the terrifying spread of COVID-19, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar revealed on Feb. 21 that three members of his team – Undersecretaries Lorraine Badoy and Joel Egco, and Assistant Secretary Kris Ablan – were traveling in Europe, ostensibly to make the continent’s media understand the “real nature” of the recent arrest of news organization Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa and to debunk the accusations of media crackdown against President Duterte.
The road show took them to Belgium, Bosnia and Switzerland. These countries have little relations with our country diplomatically or economically. Moreover, Duterte has often said that he doesn’t care what other countries think about him. So, why the need allegedly to defend him?
It is not just insensitive but downright criminal to be spending taxpayers’ money in senseless junkets in these critical times.
Lockdown will not work here
China locked down Hubei, with population of 55 million, at the peak of the COVID-19 incidents. This supreme sacrifice slowed down the spread of the virus considerably. It prompted even World Health Organization officials to praise China for its superb action in trying to contain the easily-transmissible virus.
However, other countries, with much more time to prepare than China, failed to take adequate measures to stop the spread. They valued human rights over human lives. The Italians’ Bohemian attitude led to exponential cases of COVID-19 with 1,016 deaths as of Tulay presstime. It jumped in 24 hours from 189. This is an example of a lackaidaisical attitude.
Since March 9, total lockdown measures have been imposed on the whole country.
In the Philippines, classes in Metro Manila, one of the most congested urban centers in the world, were cancelled, at least until April 12. Beginning March 15 until April 14, leisure travel in and out of the metropolis is banned.
In private schools, cancelled classes are no big deal. Students can be forced to stay home with television, internet, Netflix and online classes can be held.
But it is a different story for lower-income students in the public school system. In most areas where 60 percent of students are crowded into spaces less than 20 square meters, with no water, limited electricity, absent reading materials, toys or gadgets, it’s impossible to keep the students home bound.
They will be out in the streets playing or frequent malls and gaming places.
On our street in Quezon City, I hear megaphones asking children running in the street to go home, but it’s understandable that they prefer to be outside.
Social distancing is good, in theory. But how about the working class: garbage collectors, cooks, food servers, janitors, and drivers? Their jobs allow mass transmission of COVID-19 virus. They are contractual workers, who have no paid sick leave. They force themselves to work even if they’re sick and they will avoid hospitals at all costs, even while sick.
Does our government even realize this?
I share here the post of blogger Ding C. Velasco explaining why lockdown in the National Capital Region won’t work. The greatest hindrance, he said, are the millions of daily wage earners.
“They have zero savings, therefore have no capacity to stock on basic goods for their families. They survive as ‘isang kahig, isang tuka’ (one scratch, one peck, or just making enough to get by). These are jeepney and taxi boundary drivers, daily paid factory workers, despatsadoras or salespersons in malls and small stores in Divisoria.”
These families will not survive a two-week minimum home quarantine, he said. Without savings, none of the core C, D and E level families that constitute more than 70 percent of families in Metro Manila can afford to do any panic buying and stock up on food items.
“Without any community based ‘food bank support’ for these poor families, crime will explode if lockdown will be enforced in Metro Manila,” he said.
I agree. The only way we can survive this crisis is for us to work together and sustain each other in the worst of times, help our employees and workers, be selfless in helping others to survive. We are doubly challenged because of the sore absence of leadership by example among our highest ranking government officials.
In a Rappler editorial on March 12, Chay Hofilena noted:
“We need someone credible and authoritative to be on top of the situation and in control. Someone who will provide clear guidelines, parameters, rationalized restrictions, workflows, and who will anticipate worst-case scenarios and make sure there are adequate funding and resources provided where needed. We need competent leadership.”
We should not wait for our government officials to take action. By the time they get around to it, if they do at all, it may be too late. We are in the same boat and we will swim or sink together.

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