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A Whole New World: Part 1

President Rodrigo Duterte decided to extend the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) until April 30, 2020, upon the recommendation of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID). This is a logical and correct policy decision.


For one, it shows that political decisions are informed by science. We need to make sure that the data (the number of infections and deaths) support the decisions we make during this health crisis. We need to see that curve being flattened before we lift the ECQ. Although the numbers of new daily infections appear to be tapering, we need to make sure that the virus no longer poses a major danger to the public before we decide to lift the quarantine.


More importantly, the decision will save the lives of our people. By continuing the stay-at-home policy, we hope to be able to lower the virus transmissions and unburden our health care professionals and our health care system. Stabilizing our situation is our first priority.


I am not sure if the quarantine will be lifted even after the new April 30 extension. I believe the President will make the decision based on the information available by that time. But even assuming that a decision would be made to lift the ECQ, I think that the lifting should be done gradually, and I hope in an organized manner. We cannot go back to how things were the day before the quarantine was imposed. It has to be phased in.


In the first place, I imagine it would be impossible to go back to how we were pre-quarantined. We cannot “go back to normal” because this virus has caused fundamental changes in our society, economy, and our behaviors.


For instance, one of the changes that I hope has become permanent in our consciousness is the improvement in our hygiene habits. The coronavirus has forced people to be more conscientious in washing their hands and not touching their faces after touching surfaces like tables or doors. Even during the early reporting of the COVID-19 transmissions, I noticed a lot of people covering their mouths when they sneeze or cough.


I imagine that the post-coronavirus world will also force us to reevaluate some of our cultural habits. Will we continue the custom of shaking hands or hugging or “beso-beso” when greeting other people? For example, France has warned its citizens against kissing each other on the cheeks (a cherished cultural tradition) in an effort to avoid transmission. I have also seen people greeting each other with a “foot tap” instead of a handshake. Will the threat of the coronavirus also alter our propensity for taking “group selfies”? I wonder how celebrities and politicians will adjust to this “new normal”?


Aside from changes in our cultural behaviors, we should also expect a changing landscape in terms of business and the economy. I wonder, will the work-from-home arrangement become the new normal? In a way, the COVID crisis has forced us to experiment or even pilot-test this arrangement. I think this might force some establishments to carefully study how much of their workforce can do this scheme.


We should not just think about simply lifting the quarantine. Now that we have time, let us think about what changes we need to adopt in order to make our society safe and healthy. We should think about how we are going to react to the fundamental changes brought about by this pandemic. In my next column, I will reflect on other changes that might happen in politics, economics, and culture as we prepare to enter a whole new post-coronavirus world.



Manila Bulletin/Views/MannyVillar