AMID the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Philippines has unwittingly ensconced itself in the record books as having imposed the longest lockdown in the world. Likewise, it has attracted attention for assembling the oddest task force to fight the pandemic, a squad full of soldiers but without a single epidemiologist.
It is as if we hope to overcome Covid-19 by the sheer length of time we keep our economy locked down and keep millions of our people away from their livelihoods.
It also seems as though we have taken the metaphor of war against the virus literally. We are turning to military strategy in this fight, by implanting active or retired military officers in the task force, in preference to medical professionals and economic managers, who would undoubtedly advocate a different route to victory
Reports of international media
International media organizations were quick to notice the unusual duration of the economic lockdown in the Philippines.
Reuters reported on April 28 that the Philippines announced an extension of a lockdown of its capital region, Metro Manila, to 11 weeks, stretching one of the world’s strictest and longest community quarantines to June to try to contain the coronavirus outbreaks.
That would buck a global trend of easing lockdowns as countries try to strike a balance between containment and restoring some normalcy to limit economic damage.
President Rodrigo Duterte mentioned an extension in “some areas” on Tuesday and his spokesman Harry Roque Jr. later confirmed the time frame and retention of lockdown in the biggest cities, Metro Manila and Cebu.
That means Metro Manila, which accounts for two-thirds of the country’s Covid infections and 72 percent of deaths, will be under lockdown for 11 weeks, or 80 days, longer than the 76-day quarantine in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the global epicenter of the virus.
Restrictions will be eased across most of the country in areas deemed lower-risk, and some essential economic activities will be permitted in the capital, Roque said, in a bid to restart an economy racing toward recession due to a sharp drop in domestic consumption, the main driver.
The lockdown has slammed the brakes on two decades of uninterrupted growth in the first quarter, which shrank to 0.2 percent compared with a year earlier, far short of economists’ forecasts of a 3.1-percent expansion.
Duterte warned the public against complacency and said the wearing of masks was “a must-comply.”
“Remember that the easing up of the restrictions, this is not to say Covid is no more,” he said. “We cannot afford a second or third wave to happen.”
Asia Times Financial had a different take on the situation. It called the extension “a controversial move that is out of step with regional easing trends and promises to intensify the nation’s economic and human suffering.” It also highlighted the soldier-enforced “collective quarantine” of the capital Metro Manila and other large cities.
It said: “The lockdown has arguably done more damage to Filipino livelihoods, with more than one million jobs expected to disappear. Emergency rule has also taken a toll on the nation’s standing as a democracy, raising questions if full civil liberties will ever be restored.
Duterte’s extended lockdown has coincided with a concerted clampdown on independent media and critical voices, including its perfunctory shutdown on flimsy legal grounds of the ABS-CBN Corp., the Philippines’ largest broadcaster.
The Philippine government has yet to provide a precise rationale for extending a tortuous lockdown in one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
Around two-thirds of the country’s 11,876 cases and three-quarters of its 790 deaths have been concentrated in the urbanized Metro Manila area, according to official statistics.
But while cases are still rising, the confirmed numbers are far lower than in European nations that are now starting to emerge from their virus lockdowns.
To be sure, there are reasons to be skeptical of the government’s figures, given the much-delayed introduction of mass testing.
In mid-May, as the lockdown extended into a second month, Duterte’s administration admitted that it failed to reach even its fairly modest target of 8,000 tests per day. Experts believe that figure should increase to at least 30,000 tests a day in order to have a realistic assessment of the situation.
So far, the Philippines has tested just over 188,000 people in a country of 100 million.”
Permanent damage to economy
While the Philippines was extending its community quarantine, US officials were coincidentally raising an alarm about “permanent damage” to the US economy if the shutdown were extended,
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declared that the US economy risks suffering “permanent damage” the longer the lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic drags on.
American families and businesses are feeling the pain amid the nationwide shutdowns, Mnuchin told a Senate committee, but reopening the economy will need to be done with caution.
With the US death tally now over 90,000, some states have begun to reopen after two months of widespread closures, but there is fear that many businesses may not survive.
Government data show more than 30 million jobs have been destroyed by the lockdowns, at least temporarily, even though Congress rushed to approve nearly $3 trillion in relief, including expanded unemployment benefits
“If a lockdown and shutdown continues indefinitely ... there is the risk of permanent damage,” Mnuchin said, adding that “we’re conscious of the health issues” involved with reopening “and we want to do this in a balanced and safe way.”
He appeared remotely before the US Senate banking committee in an unusual joint appearance with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to review how officials are using the over $2 trillion Cares Act that the US Congress approved in late March.
Powell also has been sounding the alarm about the pandemic’s long-term impact both on the ability of workers to return to the labor force as well as on small- and medium-sized businesses, which he called “the jobs machine of our great economy.”
The pandemic has erased all the jobs created in the previous 10 years, making “the scope and speed of this downturn ... without modern precedent.”
Unfocused and uncertain policymaking
Many Filipinos believe the Philippines’ crisis situation has been exacerbated by the unfocused and uncertain work of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), which advises President Duterte on policy in the health emergency.
Created on May 26, 2014, during the term of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, the task force is a strange entity.
It was created in response to the emergence in succession of the severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS, avian influenza, Ebola and Middle East respiratory syndrome or MERS diseases.
The executive order saw the need for an inter-sectoral collaboration to establish preparedness and ensure efficient government response to the spread of any potential epidemic in the Philippines.
It formed a task force out of six departments, with the Department of Health as chairman. It did not give a single seat to the economic departments and agencies, who must produce the money to fight a pandemic.
Later, President Duterte would add his own twist, by appointing active or retired military officers to the body. He believes in the reliability of soldiers to perform the job.
This led to the ascendancy of the military view in policy-making, and the displacement of medical science and health professionals in the policy process. Only Health Secretary Francisco Duque 3rd is a medical doctor.
As the soldiers hogged the microphones more, the task force talked more of police power and discipline.
Many of the IATF-EID’s bizarre rules and decisions, such as the discriminatory treatment of seniors, are an offshoot of its cross-eyed composition.