To Open or Not To Open

To Open or Not To Open

Due to the lockdowns and strict quarantine restrictions, many businesses are closing shop or have gone bankrupt. (Photo: Wall Street Journal)

We long to return to normal, but ‘normal led to this’. To avert future pandemics we know are coming, we must grapple with all the ways normal failed us. We have to build something better.

— Science journalist Ed Yong

EVEN as the Philippines struggle with the increasing number of infections as the Covid-19 outbreak continues, the Duterte administration is quickly realizing that the country can no longer afford the economy-crippling restrictions needed to squash the coronavirus pandemic.

On the factory floors, in the barbershop or office towers, regulators are now pushing forward with plans to reopen, seeking to balance containing the virus with keeping people and money moving. That’s leading to a range of experiments including graduating quarantine alert levels, granular lockdowns, sequestered workers, heightened restrictions, and vaccinated-only access to establishments and offices.

Local health experts, including researchers from the University of the Philippines OCTA Group, say it’s no longer possible to reduce Covid-19 cases to zero, even if the country locks down for a long time, adding that the country will reopen “cautiously and progressively.”

In contrast to other Southeast Asian countries, which are already moving down the reopening path, the country’s low vaccination rate leaves Filipinos vulnerable to the Covid-19 Delta variant. But with state finances stretched by previous rounds of stimulus and dwindling monetary policy firepower, lockdowns are becoming less tenable by the day.

“It’s a tricky balance between lives and livelihoods,” said National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) secretary-general Karl Kendrick Chua, noting that even Singapore has been struggling with infection spikes despite having a world-leading vaccination rate. The risks of stop-start re-openings are higher in the rest of the region, where coverage is considerably lower, Chua added.

And factory shutdowns have rippled across the country, creating supply chain hiccups, with several manufacturers as business groups and financial executives warn that the situation could go “out of control.”

The daily death rate has fluctuated but infections continue to grow.

Yet government authorities, particularly those from the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) are increasingly worried about what it means economically if restrictions linger too long despite slow inoculations.

According to some economists, the Philippines is being worn down both by the economic costs from successive rounds of lockdowns and an increasing sense of exhaustion among the population as the crisis drags on.

“Any hope of a broad border reopening that can facilitate trade and tourism flow across the nation could remain a distant pipe dream,” they said.

When it comes to impacts on supply chains, the stakes have been among the highest in urban centers, where increasingly stringent lockdowns have exacted a high cost for manufacturers and exporters while failing to halt the Delta variant’s spread.

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) warned that this risks losing local and overseas customers because of tough restrictions that have shuttered factories.

Patience among the public is wearing thin across the archipelago, especially as they’ve battled the virus for longer than most would care.

Complaints against government inefficiency and corruption that predate Covid have evolved into pandemic-related protests, as seen when medical front liners staged a walkout and others threatened mass resignations. The plight of the working poor—away from promising middle-class jobs for multinational companies—is increasing pressure on the government to re-open.

And businesses are becoming more vocal about difficulties in long-term planning due to the lack of certainty around government policies. As a result, there is now a growing shift to treat Covid-19 as endemic, with some groups emulating Singapore’s strategy to learn to “live with the virus.”

Reporting the number of daily cases is now becoming more important than the severity of the disease. This becomes especially true with the national vaccination program nearing completion with its target of achieving herd immunity with 80 percent of the population inoculated.

In place of national or regional lockdowns, the Duterte administration is now looking to apply mobility curbs in more targeted zones—down to the street or even houses. Vietnam, too, is testing this strategy, with Hanoi instituting travel checkpoints as officials vary restrictions based on virus risk in different areas of the city.

Soon, only those with vaccine cards can enter malls and places of worship even as officials are considering the setting up of ‘vaccine bubbles’ for workplaces and public transport.

While this strategy may reduce the damage to the broader economy, the risk is that an unequal distribution of vaccines—in Malaysia, for instance, to economically vital states rather than poorer areas—may unfairly disadvantage lower-income residents. (ai/mtnv)

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