A New Mindset to Combat the Virus Menace
Several nations across the globe are adjusting and recalibrating their response to the predominantly Omicron strain of the Covid-19 in order to further reopen the world economy. Our experience in the past few months, in the meantime, has taught us how to manage the risks of the pandemic. And we have seen how the economy reacts positively if we loosen mobility restrictions.
We need to sustain last year’s growth momentum—the gross domestic product expanded 7.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2021—and should not be sidetracked by the sporadic outbreaks of new variants such as the contagious Omicron.
The economy expanded last year and beat the government’s own expectations because we learned that blanket lockdowns do not necessarily work and may do more harm than good. The more reasonable and more targeted granular approach led to stronger-than-expected business activities in the second half of 2021 that restored millions of Filipino jobs.
The economy, per the report of the Philippine Statistics Authority, grew 5.6 percent in 2021, but it still was not enough to cancel the 9.6-percent contraction we experienced in 2020. The broad-based expansions across almost all sectors, though, are encouraging.
We reached record daily new infections in the first two weeks of January 2022 largely because of the Omicron variant, but we did not panic and dealt with the situation without declaring another nationwide lockdown. Credit goes to the government for ensuring that the economy and the supply chain networks were functioning well during this period.
The new cases have been on a downtrend since, outpaced by the number of recoveries. Hospitalization rates are manageable and deaths do not rise as fast as the infections, thanks to the massive vaccination that now covers over half of the Philippine population.
Several nations are now shifting their focus—from eliminating the virus to managing the risks. Even countries such as Australia and New Zealand, which reported very few cases at the start of the pandemic, had to contend with the sudden surge of infections in 2022. The strategy is not to keep the virus out anymore, but how to live with it. The problem is becoming endemic. Obviously, vaccination will continue to play a major role. This should also be the case in the Philippines.
With this new mindset, even the International Monetary Fund advised countries such as China to “recalibrate” their aggressive anti-Covid policy to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic on global supply chains and economic growth. China has adopted a zero-tolerance policy on coronavirus.
IMF Deputy Managing Director Gita Gopinath has noted that while the zero Covid strategies in China worked very well in 2020 and 2021, it is no longer the case in 2022 when there are more frequent outbreaks. Economic restrictions in China and several countries are affecting the global supply chains, pushing up inflation across the globe.
International agencies now have more data and greater experience to conclude that blanket restrictions do not work. Both the World Tourism Organization and the World Health Organization have urged countries to lift or ease their travel restrictions.
Even the private sector-led International Air Transport Association has asked governments to accelerate the relaxation of travel restrictions as Covid-19 continues to evolve from the pandemic to the endemic stage. Omicron has become the dominant strain in the world despite restrictions and country bans to control the spread of infections. Nations like the UK, France, and Switzerland have recognized it and begun easing travel restrictions.
We are past the peak of the Omicron cases and should begin to apply what we have learned in the past two years. We have to live with and manage the risks from the virus so that we can start the new normal. Vaccination may become a regular requirement for travel, and other treatments and drugs may be necessary to achieve this. We may continue to wear face masks for a longer time and observe other health protocols, but we should not surrender to the easy, yet ineffective solution of economic lockdown again.
The easing of restrictions in the second half of 2021 worked in favor of the Philippine economy and the general population. Economic growth reached 6.9 percent in the third quarter and 7.7 percent in the fourth quarter.
If we let our workers continue to do their jobs and ease restrictions as the situation allows, we may achieve another 5-percent or 6-percent growth this year, which would bring our GDP back to pre-pandemic levels.
I agree with the assessment of the National Economic and Development Authority that we need to change our mindset—from a pandemic mindset to a more endemic one. This means defense from Covid should be balanced with protection from hunger, joblessness, and economic decline.
The situation should not be reduced to choosing between life and economy, as was the case in 2020. I am not saying we should not be cautious. In fact, we should be more careful as the virus becomes endemic. But we are now more prepared to handle the situation this year, armed not only with vaccines but also with the knowledge that could help us finally live the new normal.