Is the Metro Manila coronavirus lockdown bound to fail?

JC Gotinga
Is the Metro Manila coronavirus lockdown bound to fail?
The government's lockdown or 'community quarantine' will hurt minimum wage workers the most and might not effectively slow down transmission

MANILA, Philippines – The lockdown or “community quarantine” of Metro Manila is difficult to implement and hurts livelihoods – and it may not even be the most effective way to fight the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). 

The lockdown was announced on Thursday, March 12, in an address by President Rodrigo Duterte that left the public with more questions than answers, leading government officials scrambling to work out a plan in the days that followed. (READ: Questions Filipinos are asking about the coronavirus lockdown)

On Friday, officials assured the public there would be enough food and supplies to last the 30-day quarantine, appealing to them to refrain from hoarding and panic-buying.

The day before the lockdown began there was confusion when they announced – and later clarified – the start date of an 8 pm to 5 am curfew. Even then, the public must wait for each city to issue a curfew ordinance, as the region does not have its own elected administrator, like a governor for a province.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Filipinos flocked to terminals before the ban on domestic land, sea, and air travel in a rush to leave the city, which could have caused asymptomatic carriers of the virus to leave Metro Manila. 

Needless to say, Day 1 of the lockdown on Sunday did not go smoothly: the different checkpoints at the exit and entryways of the region had different rules, causing confusion among citizens. (LIST: Metro Manila lockdown checkpoints)

The panic and confusion, said Gladstone Cuarteros, De La Salle University political science professor, is due to the government not giving clear guidelines when the lockdown was announced. 

“Because [anyway], everybody is depending on the government at this time,” he said. “And if the government cannot give us a clear policy and specific guidelines, that would be a problem, as we have seen, with people panicking to get groceries and alcohol and all, plus the continuing queue at the bus stations at this time.”

On Monday, March 16, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said that an enhanced community quarantine in Luzon would be enforced. No guidelines or confirmation from the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), however, have been issued as of Monday afternoon.

Who is coordinating everything?

Locking down a region like Metro Manila isn’t easy: it would be no different from the city experiencing the “Big One,” said urban designer and landscape architect Paulo Alcazaren, wherein the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) and the military would help establish control. Channels for supplies and communications as well as hospitals would need to be set up. (MAPS: Metro Manila and the challenges of travel restrictions)

“In all of this, nobody has mentioned where is civil defense,” Alcazaren said about the lockdown. 

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), which the OCD administers, was not mentioned in the days leading up to the lockdown nor in the days leading up to its announcement.

According to OCD Administrator and NDRRMC executive director Ricardo Jalad, the IATF on the 2019-nCoV outbreak, composed of 8 departments, was expanded in a resolution on Friday. 

“Since it was expanded, its membership is already similar to NDRRMC, also with private sector participation, mostly from the health sector. Its members are almost or practically the same members that NDRRMC has,” he said.

The NDRRMC consists of 36 government departments heads and representatives, including the initial 8 departments in the IATF: the Department of Health, Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of the Interior and Local Government, Department of Justice, Department of Labor and Employment, Department of Tourism, Department of Transportation, and Department of Information and Communications Technology. 

NDRRMC also includes representatives from civil society organizations and the private sector. 

Joint Resolution Nos. 11 and 12 do not mention the NDRRMC, but instructs all heads of departments, agencies, offices, and instrumentalities of the government to coordinate on social distancing measures in Metro Manila. The IATF was also tasked with establishing regional inter-agency task groups in all regions.

Jalad said they are “still looking at harmonizing the IATF with the NDRRMC” and was looking to propose it in a meeting Monday, March 16. 

Prior to the lockdown, he said, the 2019-nCoV was already viewed as a disaster, but a smaller group was needed to come up with policies.

“It would have been much more difficult for a larger group like the NDRRMC to agree on those issues,” he said, adding, “And the IATF was working directly under the President and so the decision-making was much faster.”

Who will suffer most? 

The lockdown has interrupted the lives of those living and working in Metro Manila, but Jayeel Cornelio, director of the Development Studies Program at Ateneo de Manila, pointed out that it’s the minimum wage workers who will be the most affected. 

“At the end of the day, people have to work…and many Manileños are on a no-work-no-pay arrangement, that is what is not being asked here properly. Apart from the feasibility question, it’s really about getting people back on track,” he said. (READ: DTI to informal workers: Sell outside of Metro Manila in the meantime)

Metro Manila has a population 12.88 million as of 2015, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, but this number swells to 16 million during the day because of people from other cities and provinces coming in for work, school, and other purposes.

The National Capital Region also brings in the highest gross domestic product among all the country’s regions because of its population and its being a center of business. (FAST FACTS: Employees, businesses in Metro Manila)

People are panicking, said Cornelio, because of poor management from the government and also because their messaging has not been reassuring.

Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez on Friday advised informal workers, who are not registered to do business in Metro Manila to sell their goods outside the capital region in the meantime. 

In the same briefing, he also said that companies will encourage their employees to rent living quarters in the region and that they should shoulder expenses for this. 

Speaking about workers renting rooms for themselves in the city, Cornelio said: “Obviously, Lopez is more intelligent than that, but the fact that he said that can only mean one thing: that they have nothing concrete in mind to make this happen.”

Will the lockdown be effective?

After all of these efforts, the 30-day quarantine over the region might not be as effective as the government hopes. 

Doctor Jondi Flavier, son of the former health secretary and senator Johnny Flavier, called the measure “cosmetic.” 

“The real message is to reduce person-to-person contact so the virus will not spread,” he said. “So with that assumption or recognition, the real behavior change we want to see is more people washing their hands more often…avoiding touching, and avoiding going to very crowded areas.” 

He added later that he was apprehensive about the community quarantine because he wasn’t sure if reduced person-to-person contact will happen because of it.

A lockdown in the Philippines, said Flavier, would also be more difficult to implement than in countries like China. “If you look at where a lockdown was first done in Wuhan, in China, it’s a very autocratic state, and the police powers are very strong. For us, in spite of the alleged high police powers or control, we’re not that effective in implementing the spirit of the lockdown,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino. 

What might be more effective here? The measures Taiwan and South Korea took, where schools were called off, people were voluntarily quarantined, and messaging for proper hygiene were pushed, Flavier said.

These measures may help us in the long run too, as other diseases like tuberculosis, whooping cough, diphtheria, and influenza are transmitted in the same way as 2019-nCoV.

He said: “[Filipinos might learn] malasakit (concern). Because right now, the interest is very selfish. You put [a] mask, allegedly to protect yourself, but the spirit is you protect others. You cover your mouth, you cough properly, to protect others and prevent the spread.” –

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.