Alternatives to Lockdown
Government will soon decide whether to extend the current Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) beyond August 20. There have been suggestions from some quarters to extend the strict lockdown to the end of the month. There was even some chatter in social media about extending the ECQ for another five weeks. I am certain that President Rodrigo Duterte, as he has done in the past, will consider the health, security, and economic aspects before making his decision. I do not envy the President’s difficult position in balancing the need to contain the spread of COVID-19 and avoiding an economic disaster.
But there has got to be better alternatives than shutting down major economic and social activities. We cannot reach to the same bag of tricks and always resort to lockdowns whenever a surge happens. To be fair, the lockdown strategy has its uses and has actually helped bring down the rate of infections in the past. But we need to balance this with the economic, social and psychological damage it brings to the population. As I have written in past columns, we cannot afford to be caught in this seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns and surges. We need a reasonable alternative to this “one-size-fits-all” strategy; one that involves a more clinical and targeted approach based on evidence and data.
Instead of locking down entire cities and territories (like the so-called NCR plus bubble), we need to develop the capacity to identify and isolate specific locations that exhibit high infection rate. Some local government units have been doing this for some time now. The Quezon City government, for instance, have Special Concern Lockdown Areas that has a very granular approach. It identifies very specific areas like “isang lugar sa Mabilis St., Brgy. Pinyahan”, or, “bahagi ng Papaya St., Brgy. Culiat.” This kind of an approach allows LGUs to impose stay-at-home orders to residents of these area instead of locking down their entire constituency which may or may not have the same rate of infection.
We need to provide LGUs with support so they can more successfully do this. And there are specific strategies already in place that we can just strengthen in order to avoid full lockdowns.
The first is the full implementation of health protocols. We need to provide resources to local law enforcement agencies to ensure that they can monitor compliance to minimum health standards. They should focus on areas where social distancing might be difficult to observe like groceries, markets, and public transportation. For example, authorities should routinely check buses, jeepneys, and even queues to the MRT and LRT, making sure that they do not violate rules on social distancing and maximum occupancy. Same thing with restaurants and malls, authorities should monitor if people are wearing masks properly and following social distancing guidelines. It seems like very simple, even menial tasks, but they have been proven to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
The second is the adoption of a better, more unified contact tracing strategy. The ability of LGUs to monitor the movement of potential COVID-19 infected persons is crucial in our ability to successfully implement a more targeted strategy rather than city-wide lockdowns. It will give us the ability to pinpoint potential “superspreader” locations and immediately intervene in order to prevent a surge. This is very helpful to cities and urban areas that are normally bustling with activities. Most of the areas experiencing high infection rates are highly urbanized areas like Cavite, Bulacan, Laguna, Cebu and, of course, NCR where more people live, commute, meet, and work. We need to give these cities the necessary tools to track infections.
In addition, we should be able to make this information public. This way, our people will be informed of areas where outbreaks have occurred and make informed decisions balancing their mobility and safety. This approach should be complemented by aggressive testing and isolation. Testing allows us to identify cases of infection, isolation of COVID-19 patients in order to prevent spread and immediate treatment in order to avoid death. If we cannot agree on what “mass” testing entails, let us agree that we should at least double current testing efforts which stands at around 50,000.
There are many more steps we can do: staggered working hours for certain cities, more incentives for work-from-home arrangements, and of course, a more aggressive vaccination program. Lockdowns should not be our first, nor only option.