Currently, the country has a National Security Policy and Strategy (NSPS) that very few in the government and the private sector know about. The document fails to provide guidance and foresight in light of crisis and hazardous situations. This is a major factor on how the government now responds to the COVID-19 pandemic issue: the government offers no clear strategy on how to get out of this crisis.
When the national government declared the “State of National Health Emergency” on March 9, it means the government is invoking its “police power” or the power of the state to regulate and enforce order to promote and protect the general welfare, in this case, to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, the state is utilizing its extraordinary powers. Everything now is viewed from the prism of the “health emergency.” Other issues like mobility of people, employment and livelihood, commerce, leisure, etc. become secondary concerns — the primary being the health issue.
The subtext of the “health emergency” imposition is that the government, based on assessment, is resigned to the fact that (a) many will be infected by the virus if no action is done; and (b) many will die if they all get infected all at the same time. The health system does not have the capacity to take care of many cases at the same time, but people will have a fighting chance if they get sick one-batch-at-a-time. The aim is to “flatten the curve” — to spread out the sick over a period of time so that they all get a chance to be treated. This, apparently, is the primary solution being offered by the national government.
Social/ physical distancing is the mode. Barangay lockdown and COVID-19 checkpoints were set-up. Since the reaction of people can range from obedience to rebellion, peace and order become a potential issue. Police and the military were therefore deployed. Overnight, chaos ensued. Since there was no issuance on how the daily income of people would be addressed, the checkpoints, instead of becoming the platform for social distancing, become instant vectors of crowds and virus transmission.
This is the problem when there is no clear and coherent national health policy, strategy, and guidelines that’s communicated to the people. Interventions are done on piecemeal approach, rendering then ineffective, and worse, confuses the population. Moreover, insistence on “control and compliance” will create more chaos rather than solutions. The Philippines has 1,501 municipalities and component cities, 120 cities, and 81 provinces — each of which has their elected local chief executives, and each one is unique in terms of physical terrain and demographics. In an ideal world, the national government can simply provide the guidelines of the national health strategy and policy,and local government units are given flexibility to implement these, within legal limits, according to the context and realities of their locality. But this is far from ideal.
Many countries are fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are good practices that the Philippines can learn from. If the goal is to contain the spread of the virus, protect the most vulnerable sectors, and return to normalcy in three to six months, this author offers these recommended interventions.
The National government must immediately create a national health command center that is staffed by relevant government units and private sector experts. The command center must put in place systems that (a) would allow public and private research institutions to gather data, collaborate, share information, and mobilize experts; (b) Monitor and regulate the entry and exit of local and international flights; (c) Mobilize public and private resources to safeguard the most affected and most vulnerable sectors (i.e. the daily wage earners, informal sector, elderly, persons with disabilities) by providing safety nets in the form of food subsidy (immediate) and monetary package (medium to long term); (d) Frame a communications plan and create teams that will regularly provide updates to the public. In times of crisis, transparency of information is crucial to generate support from the public.
The Local Government Unit is the front-line in program intervention. They must (a) mobilize and engage the private sector in their localities especially in resource mobilization (e.g. funds, transportation, temporary sleeping facility for frontline workers, etc); (b) Manage the COVID-19 checkpoints, utilizing the Barangay tanod, neighborhood associations, and police, and tapping the military only when necessary; (c) Have a massive distribution of masks and put “disinfectation” boxes in strategic areas of the locality; (d) In the absence of available testing kits for massive testing, deploy LGU workers and community volunteers to do house-to-house thermal scanning of residents. This will not detect the asymptomatic cases, but at least will generate baseline data on how many are potential PUI/PUM. It would also allow the targeted deployment to testing kits; (e) Make vehicles available to community residents. The vehicles can be used for medical and other concerns, giving priority to the elderly and PWDs. If vehicles are few, scheduling on a per-street/community can be done and announced in advance; (f) Conduct community data gathering to identify households in most need of assistance. Rather than the one-size-fits-all distribution of relief package, the data will allow LGUs to distribute assistance only to those who really need them and save on resources; (g) Create a “market-day’” schedule per community/street. Bring the “market” to communities, announcing the schedule and the available commodity to be sold in advance. This will lessen the need of people to get out of communities.
In the end, what will tide the country in this crisis is partnership and cooperation — the coming together of the private sector and the government to work as one in combatting the pandemic. And a national health security policy and strategy provides the platform on how the public and private can work together.
Jennifer Santiago Oreta is the Director of the Ateneo Initiative on South East Asian Studies, and an Assistant. Professor of the Department of Political Science of the Ateneo de Manila University. She is also the Executive Director of the civil society organization Human Security Advocates.