Get priorities straight

Orlando Oxales, President of Stratbase Research and Intelligence (SRi) and Lead Convenor of CitizenWatch Philippines

As of this writing we have been in quarantine restrictions for 139 days. The July 30 official report of the government showed the Philippines total number of positive Wuhan (COVID-19) virus cases surpassing China’s count by 2,011 cases at 89,374. The next day, the surge in new infections in a single day hit 4,063 bringing the total to 93,354 positive cases. And the next day, Aug 1, there were even more new infections with 4,963, for a total of 98,232.

At the beginning of July, University of the Philippines experts predicted that total cases would reach 100,000 by the end of August. but this has been updated to an alarmingly exponential growth of 150,000 by month’s end.

Professor Ranjit Rye of the UP OCTA research team recommended to the President to either reinstate more stringent restrictions of the modified enhanced community quarantine or implement localized lockdowns while accelerating testing, contact tracing and isolation.

Even more concerning is the loud clamor of medical professionals and some 40 medical groups, our front liners who are now risking their lives becoming overwhelmed with the surging number of active cases and now testing the limits of our hospitals, to revert to enhanced community quarantine restrictions and at least a 15-day “time out” from the intensifying contagion. Data shows that new cases started spiking when quarantine restrictions started to be relaxed and the increasing daily testing capacity started revealing that we didn’t really know about the extent of the infection.

The front liners’ appeals were quickly rejected by Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, who said that the strict lockdown in Metro Manila has “served its purpose.” “Community quarantine alone, we repeat, is an insufficient response in controlling COVID-19.”

“We are scaling up hospital capacity by increasing allocation of COVID-dedicated beds while hiring more doctors, nurses, and medical-personnel,” Roque said.

All these troubling developments came after the President’s penultimate State of the Nation Address as if the virus were jerking the government to our real problem, the real fight which is to beat the pandemic. So much was said but very little, practically none, on a clear plan, a roadmap, that would have given some confidence and hope that these stressful times need.

Instead of zeroing in on needed action on the ongoing health crisis that has exploded into an economic disaster, like all his SONAs, much louder were the digressing remarks. This time, another rehash of the “oligarch” bogeys was created as a false antagonist that must be dealt with in response to some alleged “public anger” on the “less-than-ideal” mobile services of the two telcos, Smart and Globe.

The President’s threat to take over the operations of the telcos was one of the most irrational theatrical stunts obviously meant to trigger a propaganda blitz to distract from the politically damaging, less than ideal handling of the ongoing crisis. It’s an idea so absurd considering the track record of the government in running projects and the even larger economic disaster that this foolish move will cause.

One thing that may be the best outcome of this pandemic is the sudden realization that going online for all communications and business transactions is safe, convenient, and perfect for living and working in the new normal. After decades of hesitation and bureaucratic resistance to the disruptive solutions of information and communications technology, we all know now that this is the only way to go. Indeed, the acceleration of the country’s digital transformation should be the priority in the government’s recovery strategies.

Several telecommunications engineers and ICT experts have identified the lack of cell sites and inadequate digital infrastructure as the main cause of congestion of mobile services. The strategic solution is to build all these communications towers and high-speed fiber cable networks all over the country as fast as possible.

The Department of Information and Communications Technology is on the right track in its move to cut the bureaucratic delays of multiple permits especially difficult in the local government level, a problem that has been raised in past administrations. A gauntlet of requirements prone to petty and not-so-petty corruption that if not satisfied, can delay one tower project by eight to 12 months. As we stand, there are 19,000 towers in the whole country, the lowest in Asia, and with the current demand, we need at least 70,000. Expanding the reach and quality of telco services to the whole population makes sound business sense—so why would SMART and Globe hold back on investing in the expansion of their networks?

The benefits of digital transformation to enterprise level operations and most especially how government bureaucracy and front-line services can become very efficient and transparent with the integration of cloud-based technologies is not a new idea. All we need to do is to get our priorities straight.




This article was originally published in Manila Standard.

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