Covid-19 is Still in Our Midst
The slight uptick in daily Covid-19 cases last week is a reminder that the pandemic is still much around despite the small victories we achieved in the economic and health fronts. President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. himself has acknowledged after winning the May 9 elections that the pandemic remains a problem that his administration must deal with.
I welcome the decision of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases to keep Metro Manila and other areas under Alert Level 1 until June 30, but I see no triggers that warrant a more restrictive classification.
As I’ve been saying in this column before, we have to stay calm but vigilant in the continuing campaign to eradicate the epidemic. Pushing the panic button at this point will only disrupt our economic momentum and efforts to recover from the impact of the health crisis, which led to high poverty and unemployment rates in the past two years.
I agree with the sentiment of Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez that “mild Covid cases and low ICU utilization rate should not lead to escalating alert level.” The nearly full Covid-related hospitalization rate was the main reason the government declared lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. This is no longer the case this month, when hospital bed occupancy remains below 20 percent.
Vaccination and the administration of second booster shots to the wider population are the key to curbing the infection rate. It has been more than five months since the first booster shots were initially made available to adult Filipinos. Borrowing from the experience of other countries such as Israel, we may need the booster shots to keep our population protected.
Meanwhile, it will now be up to the incoming administration of President Marcos to decide on whether the Alert Level 1 status will stay or not after the end of the month. Alert Level 1 means indoor establishments and public transport may operate at 100-percent capacity for customers and passengers with full vaccination status. This more lenient status helped many businesses regain their customers and employ more workers and led to a lower unemployment rate in April.
The recent employment figures are encouraging. The unemployment rate eased to 5.7 percent in April, the lowest since the start of the pandemic, as the Philippine economy reopened. The ranks of employed Filipinos increased by 2.36 million from 43.27 million in April 2021 to 45.63 million in April 2022. More Filipinos would have found jobs, if not for the supply chain disruptions and commodity price surges caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
It is the poor and the unemployed that are most vulnerable to high prices of commodities, especially food. It is, thus, important that we sustain our economic recovery to generate more jobs and livelihood opportunities for the majority of our people.
With this in mind, the incoming administration and its health experts should perhaps craft an exit strategy from the pandemic that rules out the lockdown option and bolsters the vaccination drive at the same time. We have experienced that lockdowns are unproductive—health- and economy-wise—because Filipinos have already learned to live with the virus.
The economic rebound should be the guiding factor in any pandemic-related decisions. For one, face-to-face classes must resume in the coming school year to restore thousands of jobs in hard-hit sectors.
The gross domestic product may have expanded 8.3 percent in the first quarter of 2022, but sustaining the growth level in the long term will require the proper development of our children, who have lost two good years of education amid the pandemic. We are still measuring the impact of such wasted opportunities on our future growth. The last thing we need is to keep our children off the school for a few more years.
Sustaining the growth momentum will further enhance our employment picture, attract more foreign direct investments, reinvigorate the manufacturing sector, and improve domestic demand and support government finances.
But as the Philippines sustains its economic recovery amid the lingering pandemic, Filipinos should stay calm and be on their toes. For our incoming policymakers, economic recovery should be at the heart of the pandemic solutions.