With the National Capital Region experiencing another surge in COVID-19 cases, probably due to the more contagious Delta variant, it remains uncertain whether Metro Manila and nearby provinces will again be locked down for 15 days or longer. I am already anticipating localized lockdowns, at the very least, starting this week.
In a report in yesterday’s BusinessWorld, OCTA Research Group was quoted on the need for “circuit-breaker” lockdown for two weeks to contain the pandemic. OCTA researchers from the University or the Philippines said about 1,000 cases were now being reported daily in Metro Manila, where the coronavirus reproduction number had risen to 1.33 from 0.6 last month.
In his State of the Nation Address three days ago, President Rodrigo R. Duterte called on people to get vaccinated, noting that the economy could no longer afford more lockdowns. However, I believe it is not beyond the National Government to pull the ECQ lever yet again, like in March 2020 and in March 2021, especially if the rise in hospital cases becomes unmanageable.
Going through national figures as of July 27, the situation appears to be worsening: over 7,000 new cases daily, and over 56,000 active cases nationwide. In this line, I am already expecting localized containment measures in the next few days, and possibly a return to Modified ECQ — if not ECQ (with some adjustments) — by Aug. 1.
In Makati City where I live, during the March-April 2021 “surge,” the number of active cases climbed from 435 on March 1 to peak at 1,544 by April 22. This was despite imposing ECQ starting March 29, and then shifting to MECQ by April 16. From April 23, cases began to slide, hitting a low of 419 by July 11. At that point, the March-April 2021 surge could be deemed over.
Since July 12, however, cases have been climbing again. In a span of just 16 days, Makati City reported that active COVID cases in the city have climbed from 437 on July 12 to 665 as of July 27. Cases surged by over 50% during the period, and the drastic rise is expected to continue unless something changes by way of local or national “intervention.” It cannot be Business-As-Usual from hereon.
As I noted previously, our healthcare system barely coped when we hit 7,000 daily cases in August 2020. Healthcare workers had to call for a timeout, and the government responded by reimposing stricter quarantine measures for two weeks. Then we hit an average of about 15,000 cases daily in April 2021, overwhelming our hospitals. Are we going to hit 15,000 daily — or more — this time around?
Whether by coincidence or not, the creation of the NCR+ Bubble and the imposition of ECQ from March 29 to April 15, and MECQ from April 16 to May 15, seemed to have helped address the March-April 2021 surge. Question is, will the same measures prove to be similarly helpful now, given the strong possibility that the highly contagious Delta variant is fueling the surge in cases?
I support the OCTA call for a two-week hard lockdown for Metro Manila, perhaps for the period Aug. 1-15, and possibly its extension until Aug. 30. This is a hard choice to make, knowing its negative impact on the economy and on people’s lives. But, unless we actually do something new that can effectively contain the surge, we may not have a choice.
OCTA, in the past, called the ECQ a “one-time, big-time” measure. By now, however, the ECQ lever has been pulled once too many times, that it has become a fact of life. Yes, people’s lives will be interrupted and disrupted yet again. Poverty will worsen. But there are no new interventions in the horizon. So, it appears we should expect lockdowns to remain a regular feature of COVID interventions until the pandemic finally ends.
I prefer that people go on ECQ by choice: those who can afford to keep still should opt to keep still. No one wants a return to ECQ, given its dire implications on lives and the economy, but I don’t think we have a choice. And to wait beyond Aug. 1 for an ECQ declaration may be too late. Vaccination and compliance with health protocols will not be enough to beat Delta.
Much like in March and April, we may need a 15-day ECQ to cover Metro Manila and Cavite, Laguna, Rizal, and Bulacan. Add Batangas to the mix. Localized or granular lockdowns should also be considered, but there should be better coordination among LGUs particularly in the movement and transportation of food, food products, farm produce, and livestock.
This August, and perhaps all the way to December, we may yet see the worst stage of the pandemic. With a Delta-fueled surge now, the March-September 2020 as well as the March-April 2021 surges may pale in comparison. We should prepare for the worst possibilities. Containing the spread starts with those in a position to self-quarantine in the next 15-30 days.
Those who are lucky enough to go about our lives — work and school — from within the confines of our home should do so, immediately. This personal choice to limit movement for two to four weeks — to self-quarantine — can go a long way in battling the surge. Employers can also opt to stagger work-hours yet again and to opt anew for longer work-from-home arrangements.
We urgently need to free up indoor spaces and avoid congestion particularly inside offices and workplaces and public transportation. Curfew hours can be kept as long as there is better dispersal of workers and more people can avoid commuting by staggering working hours and pushing work-from-home arrangements where and when possible.
The sad reality is that even the most efficient vaccination program cannot beat COVID-19’s present reproduction rate. And unless we have new interventions that can be more effective in helping manage the COVID surge, then the tough decision of locking down yet again may have to be made soon.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council