Good governance to combat COVID-19

Last week, I watched and listened to Mr. Gan Kim Yong, Minister for Health of Singapore, say that responding effectively to the COVID-19 crisis will depend on a the state of the health system of a country, the extent to which it’s society has accumulated social capital to overcome serious challenges like pandemics, and on whether good governance is the norm in that country.

 I remember being filled with apprehension listening to that speech for we do not have all of those three ingredients of a successful response to a pandemic.

Yes, we are not a least developed country and so yes we have a functioning health system that works for the rich and the middle class. But it is a system that has yet to work for the poor. Certainly it does not compare in any way to Northern Italy’s modern health system, which we know is collapsing in the face of COVID-19.

Definitely, with such an economically unequal and politically divided society, there is very little social capital to recognize and talk about. I will write about how we can restore social capital in the second part of this article.

For sure, good governance is not something we can be proud of. Although previous administrations cannot boast of being paragons of clean and straight government, President Duterte himself has admitted his failure to reform government.

Failing at the start

Bad governance is the reason for the missteps at the beginning of this pandemic and the messy way the latest decisions are being implemented.

The Philippines was in a state of denial at the early stages of the pandemic. There might have been a window in late January to stop the novel coronavirus from entering our islands. But by delaying action for political and diplomatic reasons, we lost that chance.

As experts predicted, the infections began to spread, crawling at first then gaining speed as time passes – from 1 confirmed case as of January 30 and jumping to 140 confirmed cases and 11 deaths majority of whom are in Metro Manila as of March 15, 2020– a span of only one and a half months.  While in the early stages only persons with known travel history have been infected, the upsurge of infections among those with no travel history indicate that local transmission is happening, and happening fast.

By not acting immediately and decisively in preventing the entry of the novel coronavirus, the exponential explosion of infections was not prevented.

A justified lockdown

With the raising by Department of Health of Code Red Sub-Level 2 last week, President Rodrigo Duterte imposed a 30-day lockdown, euphemistically labeled as community quarantine, on Metro Manila, prohibiting domestic land, air, sea travel to and from Metro Manila up to April 14, extending the suspension of classes in the metropolis until April 12, and banning planned or spontaneous mass gatherings.

Let me be clear that I fully support this community quarantine decision, both the general one imposed on Metro Manila and potentially enhanced community quarantine in specific localities where there will be a spike in COVID-19 cases. I expect many more local governments, as we are seeing now in Cebu, Davao, and Zamboanga City, impose some kind of quarantine.

This decision was based on a recommendation by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases. Dr. Edsel Salvana, a lead scientist in that group and  a colleague in the University of the Philippines, is the most credible scientific voice on infectious diseases and COVID-19. It is good the Duterte government is listening to him and the IATF.

Dr. Salvana has been an early advocate of social distancing as the first defense to COVID-19. And he is right. 

Peter Salavey, the President of Yale University articulates the reason well: “The clearest relevant lesson we have drawn from our best-informed, wisest sources is this: pandemics are defeated by bold measures that blunt the curve of the rate of infection through the dramatic reduction of intense human contact.” This why schools have to be closed and should not reopen until the danger is past. Thankfully, there are alternatives ways of teaching and learning.

A lockdown is proven to be an effective measure to restrict the movement of people and minimize the risk of exposure or prevent those already infected from spreading the disease. It has been adopted in many affected countries like China, France, Italy, Spain to name a few, even as countries like the United Kingdom and Germany are taking a different approach at the peril of its people.

Chaos in implementing the NCR quarantine

While supporting the community quarantine, I am afraid that its implementation has been messy and problematic. I teach a climate change and disaster management course in the Ateneo School of Government and I tell my students that a good disaster response requires solid planning, which include the imagining scenarios and modelling how people and institutions respond to the decisions that will be taken.

It should have been foreseen that the announcement of a community quarantine triggered panic buying and people racing to terminals and ports to go back to the provinces and get out of Manila before the lockdown takes effect. Without adequate preparation of the other local governments, this exodus to the provinces might have the perverse effect of spreading the coronavirus across our islands.

It has not given me confidence seeing our inadequately protected police officer and soldiers in hastily set up checkpoints. Many of them could get sick because of that.

Another surprise was the announcement by the Metro Manila Development Authority that the 16 cities and 1 municipality of the National Capital Region would impose a curfew from 8pm to 5am. Local legislative councils would have to enact ordinances to impose these curfews and to provide penalties for their violation.

I oppose curfews. They  are diversionary and can even be harmful. Chances are people will stay in the places other than their homes if only to avoid the curfew and end up gathering in groups. The more reasonable approach is to temporarily close non-essential businesses and events like bars, restaurants, malls, parlors, etc. subject to supporting workers and small businesses.

On practical grounds, enforcement of a curfew is a logistical nightmare which will dissipate much needed human resources. Imagine, thousands of police and military personnel going the rounds during curfew hours accosting people and forcing them to go home. As I will argue in Part 2 of this article, government resources are better deployed to help the poor achieve social distancing.

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