Metro Manila was placed on a stricter lockdown on Friday, to stop the more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus from spreading further and overwhelming the healthcare system in the capital.
The health department has been warning that the number of people stricken with active coronavirus disease (Covid-19) could reach up to 30,000 people by next month and all tertiary-care public and private hospitals would not be able to accommodate them in the limited number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds and Covid-19 wards.
Many could also die due to lack of facilities as well as medical supplies and equipment like oxygen tanks and respirators, scenes all familiar in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in the last few weeks. These countries have better healthcare systems than the Philippines.
Thus, it will be unimaginable if transmission of the Delta variant, first detected in India, spirals out of control, turning the country into the new epicenter of the disease. It will be a recipe for chaos and confusion, one that could cost the political capital of the populist Rodrigo Duterte.
As of Sunday, the country has recorded 1.66 million cumulative Covid-19 cases and more than 77,000 are active cases, which means these are the number of people seeking treatment in medical facilities and are in quarantine in government facilities or at home.
Almost 94 percent, or 1.55 million, have recovered and more than 29,000 have died since the outbreak in late January 2020.
About 95 percent of the infected people have mild symptoms or have no symptoms, but could potentially spread the virus.
But the situation is not good. Every day since late last week, the number of infections continued to rise, averaging more than 8,000 cases.
That could be the logic behind the decision of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) to place the capital under a tight enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) for two weeks, from Aug. 6 to Aug. 20.
The business community opposed the government’s decision because it could have a drastic impact on the economy, halting the recovery process. The economy could further sink into recession, the longest since the time of Ferdinand Marcos in the early 1980s.
The labor department has projected that nearly 170,000 daily wage earners would be thrown out on the streets and would get pay cuts.
There is some uncertainty in the air as Covid-19 cases rise and the economy declines, pushing more people into poverty and reversing early gains with one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies becoming Asia’s sick man again.
Who should the government blame for the crisis? Certainly, the people could not be totally blamed for the spread of the Delta variant. It could not point an accusing finger at returning overseas workers, who initially brought the deadly Delta variant from the Middle East, Western Europe, South Asia and from neighboring Southeast Asia.
The Duterte administration and its rubber-stamp legislature should be blamed for short-sightedness and parochial interests, which were placed ahead of pandemic preparedness.
Take for example the P1,000 cash assistance the government planned to distribute to 10.8 million affected people in the National Capital Region. The fund requirement for a two-week “ayuda’ could cost billions of pesos.
But these are unforeseen expenditures in the current fiscal year. No money was appropriated for this in the 2021 budget. The Duterte’s government cannot realign its budget without the approval of Congress, which did not pass the third “Bayanihan” into law because the administration refused to certify it as an urgent measure months back.
When Congress passed the P4.3-trillion budget for 2021, the health department did not get priority despite the pandemic.
More resources were channeled to public works and highways as well as to the interior and local government departments, giving priority to development projects designed to win votes in next year’s presidential elections.
Both the administration and Congress also chose to fund the barangay development projects under the National Task Force on Ending Local Communist Armed Conflicts (NTF-ELCAC) as well as the Manila Bay “dolomite beach” project.
The money appropriated for these not-so-urgent projects could have funded vaccine procurement or the social welfare department’s social safety net projects as the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus.
Only P2 billion was allocated by the government for vaccine procurement as it relied on heavy borrowing from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank to buy Sinovac and Pfizer vaccines for about 84 million people to achieve herd immunity. Less than 10 million people have been fully vaccinated five months after the mass immunization program started.
When the Delta variant surfaced In India early this year, the government appeared to have not prepared for it. When the first cases were detected and local cases appeared in some areas outside the capital, the health department tried to calm down the public, saying there was no community transmission in the country.
Some doctors have warned the Delta variant could be driving the surge of cases in many parts of the country, like Davao, northern Mindanao, central and western Visayas and in five regions on the main island of Luzon, including Metro Manila.
When will the Duterte government learn its lessons? Prevention and preparedness can defeat the coronavirus.
But how could the government prepare and prevent the Delta variant from spreading when all the 216 cases it had detected were two to three weeks late? The infected people have either recovered or died from the virus.
The Philippine Genome Center has to ramp up tests and sequence more samples to bring up to speed the country’s biosurveillance capability and capacity. It has to have more reagents and machines as well as testing laboratories outside the capital.
The United States has funded seven new biosurveillance laboratories to monitor the African Swine Fever and other diseases related to livestocks. Perhaps, it can spare some personnel and some machines to hunt down the Delta variant.
Next year, the administration and the lawmakers are preparing the biggest-ever budget of nearly P5 trillion but they should forget their political interests and put forward a budget to defeat the coronavirus pandemic.