The whole world was plagued by a respiratory disease named Coronavirus Disease-19 or COVID-19. Its effects were potent, shocking, and lingering. After four months since its first recorded case, the virus was able to infect individuals from more than 200 countries/areas/territories. Total cases are already more than 1.9 million with more than 115,000 deaths.
The global economy was crippled with the implementation of lockdowns and community quarantines. Political leadership was tested as to how authorities can curb the disease through public obedience, provision for people’s subsistence, and sound medical solutions. Worse, social unity was divided on who must be prioritized, as if humankind is facing another survival epoch. For some, the dichotomy of rich and poor nations does not automatically translate to an advantage. It is the combination of leadership strategy and the will of the nation to beat the virus that made the difference.
SHOCK AND AWE
The virus struck the Philippines with its first-ever case on January 30, 2020 and its first local transmission case on March 7, 2020. Since then, COVID-19 and those Persons Under Investigation (PUI) and Persons Under Monitoring (PUM) steadily increased. Consequently, on March 16 the entire Luzon island was put under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), essentially a lockdown, while regions in Visayas and Mindanao followed suit through Executive Orders. The schedule to lift the Luzon lockdown on April 12 was suspended and was moved to April 30. Except for the frontliners and those in the essential sectors, everything is in a halt. In the first half of April, the Philippines reached more than 4,500 confirmed COVID-19 cases with more than 300 deaths.
Despite the fast transmission of virus in other countries and the implementation of lockdowns for severe cases, the government then was not alarmed by the COVID-19 threats. Even with the recorded case in January, it was still business as usual. And so, it was caught unprepared for the most severe and life-threatening pandemic. No drafting of plans/guidelines/protocols, no travel restrictions to/from affected countries, no beefing-up of medical resources and capacities, no massive training for all frontliners, no active public awareness campaign, and no strict implementation of precautionary measures. Until the chills became closer resulting to widespread panic.
Being unprepared, it took two weeks after the ECQ declaration before guidelines, implementing plans and mechanisms have started to be put in place. However, there are areas needing improvements and innovations for timely response and better service.
OBEDIENCE AND SUBSISTENCE
The response was swift—locked the borders to prevent transmission. The goal is to contain the virus and limit the areas for contact tracing which may provide more time for the government to figure out what would be the next step. Who would have thought that an invisible enemy can cause massive changes and challenges? The streets became empty, factories shut down, companies stopped operating, some offices adjusted to work from home. Aside from the frontliners and those providing essential necessities, everybody should be at home.
The lockdown came without clear guidelines. Those who have the means to go home to the provinces rushed, some even walked when the transport services stopped. As a result, localities outside the metropolis were burdened and were forced to deal with PUI and PUM entering their territories. Still in the metropolis, many were left in the streets as they have nowhere to go.
The local economy was deeply hurt making it doubly hard for the “poorest of the poor”. The farmers who cannot transport their products, the daily earners who automatically became jobless, the informal sector, even dependents of Overseas Filipino Workers who became jobless due to the virus are bearing the brunt of the crisis. Everybody, save for some who have the means, are affected. As hunger became widespread, social unrest became evident.
Now, with the Social Amelioration Program, the issue has shifted from the disease but among the people squabbling for government assistance. Today, equality versus equity became the central concern worsened by the government’s pronouncement of limited resources. The pandemic has brought about new inequalities in the whole equation of things.
ADVOCACY AND PARTICIPATION
This unprecedented crisis did not only bring lessons, but good and best practices. This situation brings out the best and worst leadership and governance. Once again, we have witnessed how Inclusive Community-Based Disaster Risk Reduction and Management is vital. National declarations and pronouncements burdened local authorities and the communities as there were no consultations, no clear guidelines and no adequate support were given. Local capacities differ as to strategies, available resources, internalization of responsibilities, and levels of initiative. We are very much grateful to the LGU’s in different levels, working hard and fast through innovations, introduction of good practices and/or its replication.
We support the whole-of-society approach in dealing with this crisis. We specifically call on giving due value to the roles of civil society organizations and people’s organizations. CSOs/POs can help in awareness-raising, education and training, mobilization of volunteers, appropriate and timely response among other interventions thereby fostering unity, understanding and participation within the community.
We continue to help in information dissemination by promoting preventive and preparedness measures to contain the spread of the virus. We advocate in various platforms the risk information so the public may know the right information on the crisis. We will come up with risk communication themes in a programmatic manner all throughout the period.
We will continue to call for massive testing to establish a baseline which forms the basis for flattening the curve. Massive testing should prioritize PUIs/PUMs, health workers, and frontliners. Random testing should also be done at the community level, especially in crowded areas and congested households where social distancing is not possible.
We advocate for much needed support for the health sector, from the medical professionals to the support staff. The deaths of medical practitioners across the country pointed to the lack of protective personal equipment and late COVID-19 detection due to selective testing. Let their lives be not in vain by providing the resources, facilities, augmentation, benefits, massive testing and other support that the health sector may need.
Considering our limitations and difficulties today, we will consider setting up an online capacity building on the provision of psychosocial support intervention together with our partners. There is lingering need to care for our ‘carers’ who are also dealing with high levels of stress and exhaustion. Online psychosocial support can also provide an opportunity to those staying at home to exude positive emotion and inspiration.
We will proactively exercise our role in collaboration and coordination especially with the government, fellow civil society organizations and with the private sector since it has established working relations and partnership with these sectors.
COMPASSION AND OVERCOMING
Amid this crisis, we continue to advocate for humanitarian principles putting human dignity as the basis for response and putting the affected people at the center of it all. Relief and assistance in any form is given not because we are desperately in need but because our rights to survive and recover with dignity are respected. It is imperative for the government to provide clear guidelines for the Social Amelioration Program and its complementation to other amelioration programs of different agencies. It is imperative for those providing relief of food and non-food items to ensure that the quality of goods being distributed are suitable for human consumption. Local agricultural products should be prioritized for relief packages as a healthier option and as a form of assistance to our farmers.
We call for the inclusion of older people, persons with disability, women and children as these groups have particular needs that should be addressed. They need to be heard and protected, especially during lockdowns where abuses and neglect became more invisible.
We advocate for respect and against discrimination of COVID-19 patients, their families and even the health workers. The ugly face of unfounded fear already resulted to assault, eviction from rented dwellings, selective transport service and intrusion to privacy. It is with best intention that we positively encourage the patients and families for them to voluntarily come out for speedy contact tracing.
We call for the respect of the people’s democratic rights guaranteed by the 1987 Constitution - the right to freedom of expression, the right to seek redress, the right to forward grievances. We are mostly locked as we understand obedience, but we can still speak through various means. We want to participate, and we want to be heard and this right of pro-active citizens should be upheld and cherished. Moreover, the implementation of the lockdown should not be taken as a blanket authority to violate human rights through inhumane punishments. Threats and unnecessary use of force and authority has no place in a democratic society.
Overcoming this pandemic is not an easy task. This issue is intertwined with economic, political and socio-cultural dimensions. Addressing this concern goes beyond the sphere of health, as if every piece of humanity needs to find its proper place. The medicine and vaccine for COVID-19 can be discovered by experts and scientists after some months. For now, we will all hold the line. We seriously practice all precautionary measures. We abide by clear policies and guidelines. We continue to be vigilant on any mismanagement, confusion and excesses. Let this crisis preserve the humaneness in every one of us.
This virus has given us an opportunity to be more introspective, alert and participative. Let these internal and external strengths radiate further. Like in any battle, our last line of defense are the people – all of us who will continue to fight the disease through medical solution, better governance, unity, compassion and service.
We will bounce back! We will bounce forward!
Center for Disaster Preparedness
April 14, 2020