Imposing and extending the lockdown or the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) is a difficult choice to make. The biggest casualty is the economy. That the Philippine economy (and for the rest of the world) shrunk in the first quarter of 2020 was expected. Only upon the containment of the pandemic — and we do not know when this will happen — can the economic slump be turned around.
The plunge in economic growth is the price to pay to protect the health of our people and save lives. We thus have to make the ECQ work.
The ECQ likewise makes economic sense. The country’s social and economic fiber is strengthened by saving scores of thousands of lives and preventing more people from getting severely sick. This enables a smoother and quicker recovery.
The choice of trading the economy for the people’s health by adopting the ECQ is deliberate. This is unlike previous recessions or downturns that were a result of bad or misguided choices.
Arguably, rejecting a lockdown would have still yielded the same negative economic outcome. This is because the pandemic, with or without lockdown, deadens the spirits of consumers and investors. The fear of the deadly virus whose spread is exponential makes people panic. Markets, both domestic and foreign, are disrupted and become incomplete.
To illustrate, even Sweden, which models itself as a country that has not resorted to a full lockdown, is suffering economically. The title of a CNBC news report (April 20) needs no further explanation “Sweden had no lockdown but its economy is expected to suffer just as badly as its European neighbors.” Sweden’s central bank paints two scenarios, both grim: the better scenario of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracting by 6.9% in 2020 and the worse scenario of output falling by 9.7%.
The health outcome of Sweden’s controversial strategy is dreadful. To quote a note (May 2020) from the Peruvian economist Oscar Urgateche: “Sweden, which also chose not to implement containment measures, has more deaths per million inhabitants than the US, with the former having 319 and the latter 238.”
In the Philippines, the ECQ has prevented a much higher number of people from dying and from getting infected by COVID-19. At the national level, the reproduction number is less than one, which means we have been able to slow down the spread of the virus. Still, densely populated, highly urbanized areas remain at high risk. In this context, the ECQ is gradually being relaxed.
Admittedly, we could have done better. Lack of initial resources is understandable but surmountable. Success stories in Vietnam or in the Indian state of Kerala demonstrate that a “low-cost” strategy is feasible in fighting the pandemic.
But inexcusable factors undermine the Philippine strategy. These include the following: policy inconsistency (e.g., conflicting pronouncements on the use of antibody tests, despite the caution of the medical community that antibody tests are highly unreliable for diagnostics); non-compliance with social distancing (e.g., high-level officials who violate rules being condoned); political distractions (e.g., the closure of the ABS-CBN media conglomerate and a campaign to postpone the 2022 elections); corruption (e.g., the hold up of medical supplies at the Bureau of Customs and essential goods at barangay checkpoints; bureaucratic inefficiencies (e.g., slow distribution of social amelioration benefits).
A recent global survey done by the Singapore-based Blackbox (blackbox.com.sg) on the performance of the political leadership in addressing the pandemic shows an average score of 40% approval. The survey covers 23 advanced economies and emerging economies. The score for the Philippine political leadership is 45%, slightly above the average but still low. Surprisingly, for political leadership, the Philippines is ranked number 8, even ahead of countries with good institutions like Singapore (41%), Australia (41%), Germany (35%), South Korea (21%) and Japan (5%). It goes without saying though that we should not compare ourselves with other countries because many other variables are not controlled.
Also revealing is that across the board, the scores for business leadership (28%) and community leadership (37%) are worse than that for political leadership. Only media leadership has performed creditably (76%). For the Philippines, business leadership, community leadership, and media leadership have scores of 37%, 36%, and 78%, respectively.
COVID-19 will not go away soon. The Philippines is on its way to flattening to the curve, even as more compelling actions have to be taken. But we cannot discount the possibility of resurgence. Hence, quarantine, social distancing, and related stern measures will still be used in varying forms.
Compliance through collective action is absolutely necessary to winning the war against COVID-19. But what will thoroughly enable compliance and collective action is having a leadership that is trusted and credible.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.