Why It's Time to Lift Quarantine Restrictions
Recently, the Philippine government released to the public its “Ingat Angat” initiative that introduced the agenda of normalizing our country in a post-pandemic era. The reception was mixed, with much of the negative reaction expressed on Twitter. Some considered the policy to be “senseless” and “irresponsible.”
However, there is actual policy sense with lifting quarantine restrictions. Much of it is supported by both empirical data and case studies in the past year. Dr. David Nabarro from the World Health Organization (WHO) claimed the following:
“Lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer.”
The 180-degree turn by WHO is a recognition of an important political point. Much of the approach to quarantine was based on fear and not science. It was a response not limited to the Philippines but also to many countries. Indeed, it was the first pandemic since the 1920 Spanish Influenza. A pandemic such as this one cannot be compared to the conditions that led to the spread of Spanish Influenza.
Yet, it is also important to note that months into the pandemic, policymakers and healthcare experts have received so much scientific information and data regarding the coronavirus and its ability to infect and transmit to other persons. Policies based on fear are no longer an excuse and no longer have any right to exist at the waning stages of the pandemic.
Doctors know more about the virus now more than ever. Most of the infection begins when the virus can get inside the body through the nose. This makes the nose the most important pathway and should be protected easily even with a surgical mask. COVID-19 is also not airborne and relies on water particles to infect others. This also makes the virus susceptible to humidity, as simulated by a Japanese supercomputer. This makes the virus have a much higher infection rate in closed spaces—especially air-conditioned areas—than in open-air spaces.
The Japanese supercomputer simulation also showed that face shields are ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus, and that surgical or N95 masks are more than sufficient to prevent its spread. Health experts know that these factors significantly reduce the risks of infection. Infection becomes even more minuscule when wearing surgical or N95 masks is made a habit along with washing of the hands and other good hygiene practices.
Cases are expected to rise with or without strict quarantine.
Foreign countries such as those in Europe are currently experiencing a resurgence of viral transmissions despite earlier quarantine measures. The important aspect of dealing with the pandemic is that the rise of cases is manageable and healthcare capacity remains capable. Sweden is one example where its government relied on contact tracing and expanding hospital capacity instead of enforcing a lockdown. Germany is another example where its government instead increased its internal care unit capacity in preparation for a resurgence of viral transmissions.
Indeed, countries such as Sweden and Germany have strong scientific institutions with regard to their policies. But the decision-making within these countries was also hampered by politics similar to what happened here in the Philippines. Like the Philippines, these countries had economic concerns as a stumbling block for deciding on a pandemic response. Ultimately, the most effective policy is healthcare management, quick response, and localized isolation.
Quarantine measures were meant to buy time to put these policies and resources into place to make that possible.
It also allowed our healthcare capacity both a breather and time to expand to avoid the worst-case scenario of doing “triage.” As shown in Germany’s case, expanding the healthcare system and quick response toward localized isolation are much more effective policies compared to a general quarantine.
In the Philippines, our healthcare capacity has significantly improved. Doctors and hospitals in the Philippines treat COVID-19 more like the common flu at this point compared to the start of the pandemic. That is because much is now known about the virus, and the effective policies and treatment regime are already in place. The passage of the “Bayanihan Act 2” also guaranteed more funding for the healthcare system up to next year.
Most local government units (LGUs) also already have the sufficient capacity to handle isolation strategies of persons under investigation or persons under monitoring for COVID-19. Iloilo, Baguio, Pasig, and Manila are some examples of LGUs that have both the capacity and programs to manage the virus in a localized setting. The national government is also already conducting testing through its partnership with both public and private health institutions, and has already allocated additional budget for pandemic response under the passage of “Bayanihan 2.” Ultimately, data- and information-driven policy is the most essential to limiting the spread of the virus. The digitalization of all existing data available to the government is crucial to making pandemic response work. It allows the government to directly see hotspots for virus spread and enforce isolation immediately.
Nominal restrictions would still be needed such as the mandatory wearing of face masks and some form of social distancing measures, especially in high foot traffic areas such as malls and transport hubs. Distance-learning and work-from-home setups would probably still be needed until a vaccine is released.
It also needs to be emphasized that people can no longer be expected to follow quarantine rules under a “lockdown” environment anymore as they have been burdened with more than enough “sacrifices.” Cabin fever has set in among the population.
And it is paramount that people need to work in order to eat.
Because of both these factors, people can no longer be expected to follow community quarantine protocols no matter how intense the enforcement of the law. A better normal, however, can become a reality with these specific policies that are being considered within government circles:
1| Full automation and digitalization of all existing government and public data to allow policymakers to quickly respond not just to pandemic-related issues, but also other issues of public concern such as social welfare, healthcare, education, agriculture, among others.
2| Public investment and expansion of local clinics and hospitals to make healthcare more accessible. Provincial hospitals are also given more financing capacities by the national government during the start of the pandemic. This allowed doctors and nurses from the province to respond not just to cases of COVID-19 but also to other health cases. It would also allow hospitals to allocate more internal care units in case of a localized resurgence of COVID-19 cases.
3| Rationalization of public transportation, which not only should include the upgrading of jeeps, tricycles, and other public transport units, but also provide regularized wages and job security for drivers as a replacement for the boundary system. Rationalization is also being done through enforcing strict bus stops, route management integration, among others.
4| Improvement in broadband infrastructure and reducing red tape in the approval of such projects especially toward the expansion of cellular towers and fiber optic cables. This will allow Internet service providers to deliver faster Internet service while also making a “minimum guaranteed speed” enforced by the government a viable policy option.
5| Free provisions of digital gadgets such as tablets and laptops, especially for the poorest students to promote equitability in the transition toward digital-based education services.
6| Automating or computerizing social welfare services not just to reduce backlogs but also to reduce corruption. This is one option being considered by some policymakers in Congress due to the PhilHealth corruption scandal that was exposed during the height of the pandemic.
There were many challenges and blunders faced in responding to the pandemic. One thing that is certain is that quarantine enforcement is no longer feasible nor effective. It is time to give Filipinos hope for the “better normal,” and that should start with lifting the quarantine.