We’re not there yet, so…

Orlando Oxales, Fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute and Lead Convenor of CitizenWatch Philippines

The announcement last Friday of another two-week extension, up to May 15, of the Enhanced Community Quarantine came as no surprise as the latest data showed the National Capital Region leading the list of “High Risk Areas” along with Central Luzon (Region III), Calabarzon (Region IV-A) and all other high-risk areas.

Benguet (CAR), Pangasinan (Region I), Tarlac and Zambales (Region III), Antique, Iloilo, and Cebu (and Cebu City), Davao de Oro will be subject to re-evaluation by April 30 and may change status to a less stringent General Community Quarantine (GCQ) if conditions improve.

These are our most productive regions hosting the biggest industries that drive the economic prosperity of the country, until the global pandemic of the Wuhan virus forced hard restrictions to human activities, because for now, our best weapon to stop the onslaught of infection is by physical and distance barriers between each human body.
“Social Distancing,” a clever oxymoron, is a very counter-intuitive behavioral imposition that challenges our innate social nature as human beings. Compliance to this seemingly simple and doable prohibition is proving to be difficult for households in the overcrowded communities in Metro Manila. Small dwellings that were more like sleeping spaces barely bearable with the rotating work shifts of its occupants are now unnervingly choked in the hot and humid summer days and nights.

Millions of employees are made idle by shutdowns of industries that for centuries have designed their operations centered on efficient production outputs with little or no regard for fatally infectious outbreaks. Now all its employees are in lockdown limbo because their bodies are the perfect hosts of the contagious virus.

A quick look at the Department of Health’s official COVID-19 information tracking graphs still show the steep rising slope of cases. This is expected to continue as mass testing is just beginning to gain momentum revealing more infections with each batch of test results.

The recent launching of TASK FORCE T3 (Test, Trace and Treat), though a little late, is a welcome development that finally responds to so many calls from experts to do mass testing as a critical phase in flattening the pandemic’s curve. This new initiative is a public-private task force that aims to test 30,000 individuals per day by the end of May. The proven RT-PCR (Reverse Transmission—Polymerase Chain Reaction) testing method will be deployed in this project.

Healthcare industry players and pharmaceutical groups have been invited to participate. The initial members from the private sector are: AC Health/Qualimed, Unilab, the MPIC Hospital Groups, The Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation and the Philippine National Red Cross. Hopefully, the combined forces of these groups will successfully execute the volume of test that will be able to generate the data needed for accurate tracking, management of new cases, and basis for when and how the ECQ restriction should be adjusted. As COVID-19 testing becomes more accessible, private companies can have their employees tested so that a clear mapping of the health of their people can guide their own post-lockdown strategies.

So, while we’re obviously not there yet, urgent modifications to guidelines and implementation are needed to prevent some serious food supply and financial services disruptions. The significance of these problems are at the national security level because of the destabilizing potential if these systems fail. This is a complicated problem because the smooth operation of a company, more so of an industry, relies on the steady delivery of services and products of interlinked supply chains.

An over simplified illustration is to look at the food sector, an “essential” industry that supplies the people’s daily sustenance. The meal served at your dining table, was grown, processed, transported to distribution networks, which then delivers to a network of wholesalers and/or retail outlets in each region or territory of the country, where it was purchased by your household’s quarantine pass holder, brought home before curfew and cooked in time for dinner.

It looks straightforward, but not quite. Each of these links have their own ecosystems of suppliers that are essential to keep their operations running. A major breakdown in this chain, whether transportation, supply, personnel, or financial, will cause a direct impact on the consumers which in this crisis, magnifies anxieties, creates more uncertainty, fear, discontent and eventually a less stable political environment.

Ensuring the uninterrupted food supply, healthcare, power, fuel, public utilities, and transportation will need the products and services of an army of allied industries to replenish consumables and restock inventories. This becomes an extraordinary governance challenge that requires the highest levels of skill, experience, practical thinking and openness to cross-sectoral and non-political collaboration.

For every criticism voiced out by observers on certain implementation missteps in the still developing ECQ guidelines, there are several well-meaning and practical recommendations inspired from direct observations by industry stakeholders and experts. All these can be done while complying with social distancing.

Important to keeping supply chains flowing is the full operation of the manufacturing industry. The production of products essential to the continuing operation of other industries or trades makes all manufacturing activities essential and will even contribute to increasing consumer demand from its employees going back to work.

Mentioned many times in interviews and in online discussions is to have longer shopping hours for public markets and grocery stores. Limiting the operating hours generates long lines and crowds that could have been spread out with longer shopping time.

Banks and remittance companies should operate more branches and have regular hours to ease transactions of their clients. Managing payrolls and sending funds to families in the provinces has become difficult especially for the unbanked population.

Our suffering and this economic disaster will worsen to unthinkable consequences if we don’t know who has the virus and who’s good to go back to work. The aggressive expansion of testing capacity under TASK FORCE T3 will be key to ending the lockdown. Let us all give our support and cooperation.

Test, Trace, Treat!




This article was originally published in Manila Standard. Image Source: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images.

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