Opinion

We Need a Real Lockdown, Not a Half-Assed ‘Community Quarantine’

The choice now is between bad or worse.
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After last night's declaration of Code Red Sublevel 2, the government announced that Metro Manila will be placed under a lockdown—that is not really a lockdown at all. They’re calling it “community quarantine,” a less aggressive term that makes it sound like we’re just going camping.

In an announcement that should have settled fears and offered clarity, it only left the public with more unanswered questions than before, as it became clear that “community quarantine” isn’t even a quarantine at all. To quote Senator Nancy Binay’s comments during a Senate hearing, “I don’t want to panic, but you’re making me panic.”

Under this new protocol, school is suspended and work-from-home schemes are encouraged. Workers with offices in Manila and homes in the provinces will be allowed to travel back and forth, with “checkpoints” in place that will request for proof of address and undoubtedly cause immense traffic. Buses will still be allowed to enter and exit the capital, and “social distancing” will be enforced in train carriages—meaning hundreds will be crammed together in slow-moving lines.

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These guidelines defeat the very purpose of community quarantine, which is to reduce the number of positive COVID-19 cases and protect the health of the people. Instead of protecting the public, we’re getting a half-assed community quarantine without a clear battle plan and with too many loopholes that will give the virus the time and space to spread inside and outside of the metro. There are already confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Cavite and Batangas, where residents now have to face the threat of a pandemic just two months after a volcanic eruption upended their lives. At least you can flee a volcano—you can’t run from a virus.

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For a pandemic to stop, movement must stop—before we carry it to every corner of the country. This is why a strict lockdown is necessary, because the Philippines is wholly unequipped to deal with a pandemic. There is no evidence that suggests that the Philippines is more prepared to face COVID-19 than first-world countries like Japan, South Korea, and Italy, which are all breaking at the seams with the colossal number of cases overwhelming their healthcare systems.

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Lockdown is extreme and scary, but it’s a measure we need to take before the pandemic reaches inconceivable levels. Intervention must take place to keep the number of cases at manageable levels before hospitals stop accepting patients and individuals will only be admitted when they’re on the brink of death.

Based on how the government is presenting this confused quarantine, the primary concern is no longer COVID-19’s spread, but the economy. There is a very real, tangible fear that the Philippine Stock Market will crash due to COVID-19-incited fears among investors. But the thing is, the market will crash either way—whether the lockdown happens now or in two months’ time when the outbreak is uncontrollable. And without extreme measures, the number of positive cases will grow exponentially with each passing day.

A lockdown, if done right, will work. If food and relief goods are delivered to residents, if mortgages and loans are put on hold, if the health experts—and certainly not the military—are put in charge, we might just stand a chance at riding out COVID-19 with minimal fatalities.

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Data states, without a shred of doubt, that lockdowns work. Once lockdowns were imposed in China, the number of cases dropped. But in places like the U.S. and Europe, where most areas are not under lockdown or lockdown was imposed too late, cases are rising rapidly. The exceptions to this are South Korea and Singapore, where advanced technology, government funding, citizen participation, and the ability to test 15,000 people a day have made these countries medical marvels.

Lockdown will hit everyone hard, particularly the service sector and the poor, and the wealth disparity in the Philippines will become even more apparent. The most vulnerable groups, like the unemployed and the daily wage earners, will feel the brunt of the impact, while the relatively well-off will be inconvenienced at most.

But if we wait two or three months, we could experience the same peak as Italy or South Korea, but without the latter’s recovery. Time for hard truths: We are not pandemic-ready, we do not have a strong healthcare system, and we do not have a strong economy that can survive a country-wide outbreak. If we wait too long, we increase the chances of rising unemployment, businesses shutting down, and hospitals at overcapacity. The reality is that we cannot delay the inevitable as it will only increase the number of fatalities and drive more people into poverty. Waiting for a vaccine isn’t an option, not when it might arrive at the end of year at the earliest.

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What people don’t understand is that there is no escaping the societal impact of COVID-19. Every possible outcome will be terrible, but our actions can decide on just how terrible it has to be. It’s time to choose the lesser evil, before COVID-19 chooses for us. There is no denying that a lockdown is fundamentally bad. It’s aggressive, invasive, and frightening. But our choice now is between bad and worse.

Under lockdown, the efforts of the real heroes of this pandemic, the first responders and the healthcare sector, will not go to waste. The population can be more easily traced, tested, and treated, and the spread can be stopped.

But for any of this to happen, we need more than a lockdown—we need a population that won’t hoard, but help one another, united toward protecting the sick and elderly. And we need a coherent, competent government force, headed by the Department of Health with a ready battle plan instead of a military presence threatening random arrests. We need a government that will inspire courage, instead of incite fear.

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Felix Herrera
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