Duterte meets health policy experts as decision on lockdown looms

MANILA, Philippines – Ten days before the scheduled end of the Luzon-wide lockdown, President Rodrigo Duterte met with health and disaster response experts as he and his advisers decide on their next steps in addressing the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The meeting took place on Monday, April 21, at the Malacañang Golf Clubhouse. Also present at the meeting were Cabinet officials who are members of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The President made no final decision on the lockdown during the meeting. Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, who is also IATF spokesperson, said in a virtual press briefing on Tuesday, April 21, that the Chief Executive still had enough time to make a final decision ahead of the April 30 lockdown.

The group of experts present at the Monday meeting included former health secretaries, leaders of doctors' groups or associations, health reform advocates, and medical school professors. (WATCH: Rappler Talk: Ex-DOH chief Esperanza Cabral on the race against time)

One of them, Mahar Lagmay, is a disaster response expert who headed Project NOAH, a disaster response and management program, during the Aquino administration.

The invited resource persons, all doctors, are the following:

President Duterte now at meeting with health experts and Cabinet members where possible extension of Metro Manila lockdown is among the topics. Malacañang photo @rapplerdotcom pic.twitter.com/gkDP99ZUgZ — Pia Ranada (@piaranada) April 20, 2020

Former health secretary Enrique Ona Jr participated in the meeting through a video call, through which he shared his thoughts on mass testing, according to Leachon.

Another  former health chief, Manuel Dayrit, was also recommended to be invited to the gathering but he was not present. (WATCH: Rappler Talk: Ex-DOH chief Manuel Dayrit on containing outbreaks)

The meeting began with a presentation of Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Chua and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on the current situation and options post-April 30, the last day of the Luzon-wide lockdown or "enhanced community quarantine."

The experts were then asked to weigh in on these scenarios and give their own recommendations.

What were the positions of the health experts? Experts and government officials alike sought a balance between the need to continue social distancing measures and reduce damage to the economy.

Health reform advocate Anthony Leachon is in favor of a "modified" enhanced community quarantine in Metro Manila from May 1 to 15, he told Rappler.

He also agreed with a "rolling reopening of economy in Luzon" in the first two weeks of May.

A modified community quarantine is among the options being considered by the IATF,  Nograles said on Tuesday.

Allowing the resumption of operations of industries in which social distancing can be imposed is also another scenario being studied, he added.

Meanwhile, Lagmay shared the assessment of the UP COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team. They found that the Luzon-wide quarantine was a "relative success," according to their policy paper uploaded on the UP website.

The lockdown imposed since March 15 in Metro Manila and March 17 for the whole of Luzon appeared to slow down the increase in reported positive cases.

"Time-series analysis shows it now takes a little longer for the number of confirmed cases to double in number. What took 3 days for the total number of cases to double now takes about 6 days to happen," reads their second policy note.

But experts also emphasized the need to improve the government's data on coronavirus cases through more aggressive testing and more granular reporting of cases on the local government level. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.