The coronavirus threat: Lessons from other countries

Pauline Macaraeg

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The coronavirus threat: Lessons from other countries
This is how the Philippines compares in terms of budget priorities, testing, and governance

On February 27, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the Philippines is one of the model countries in fighting COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. At that time, the country had only 3 confirmed cases.

Eight days later, the Department of Health (DOH) announced an additional two cases, the first two Filipinos found with coronavirus. The number of confirmed cases and deaths has surged since then, and it continues to rise at a fast pace as of writing – at 230 confirmed cases, 18 deaths, and 8 recoveries as of early Friday afternoon, March 20.

DOH experts even estimate cases could reach 75,000 by June if not contained. 

To address the situation, the Duterte government’s economic team on March 16 announced a P27.1-billion package ($526.3 million) dedicated to addressing issues related to coronavirus.

The bulk of it – P14 billion ($271.9 million) – will go to the tourism sector, while P3.1 billion ($60.2 million) will go to efforts to stop the spread of the virus including acquisition of test kits.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III explained that the tourism sector has the biggest share “because as of now, the tourism sector is the most affected.”

Social protection programs for vulnerable workers are allotted a total of P3.2 billion ($62.1 million) – P2 billion ($38.8 million) from the Department of Labor and Employment for wage subsidy/financial support, and P1.2 ($23.3 million) billion from the Social Security System for unemployment benefits. (READ: FAST FACTS: What is the SSS unemployment benefit?)

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The Technical Education and Skills Development Authority or TESDA is also allotting P3 billion ($58.3 million) to temporarily displaced workers by providing scholarships for upskilling and reskilling programs.

Meanwhile, P2.8 billion ($54.4 million) will come from the Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Credit Policy Council, which will provide loans of up to P25,000 (P485.5) each at zero interest for smallholder farmers and fisherfolk affected.

The remaining P1 ($19.4 million) billion will come from the Department of Trade and Industry, which will be allocated to its microfinancing and special loan packages for affected micro, small, and medium enterprises.

Spending where it counts: Rapid testing, quarantine

The Philippines announced its budget vs coronavirus on March 16 – 6 weeks and 4 days since the first confirmed case in the country.

In contrast, South Korea announced an initial budget of 20.8 billion won ($16.5 million) against coronavirus on January 28 – only 8 days after it recorded its first case of COVID-19. It then announced another package worth 11.7 trillion won ($9.3 billion) on March 4 as additional stimulus to fight coronavirus and its adverse effects on the citizens and the economy.

Unlike the Philippines, South Korea’s initial budget against coronavirus was rightfully dedicated to medical services and treatments. The biggest chunk at 32% (6.7 billion won or $5.3 million) was allotted to disease control and quarantine systems. The second biggest fraction at 25% (5.2 billion won or $4.1 million) went to diagnosis.

Gye Cheol Kwon, chairman of the Korean Society for Laboratory Medicine, told ProPublica that the country learned from its experience with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015, which resulted in 38 deaths – the largest outbreak outside the Middle East. (READ: How does COVID-19 compare to SARS and MERS?)

“With our past experience with MERS, we found it very important to diagnose people quickly and to prevent spread to the community through isolation of infected people,” he said.

To date, South Korea appears to have the most expansive testing capabilities in the world – with its drive-through screening centers that can screen thousands of people daily.

March 2020 study on South Korea’s experience said that this capacity, together with efficient contact tracing, is key to controlling the spread of the infection. “Diagnostic capacity at scale is key to epidemic control,” said Raina MacIntyre, an emerging infectious disease scholar at the University of New South Wales.

Based on live updates from Johns Hopkins University, South Korea has 8,652 confirmed cases and 94 deaths due to the coronavirus as of Friday afternoon, March 20. It has tested more than 270,000 people – or about 5,200 tests per million inhabitants. South Korea has a population of about 51.3 million. The Philippines has close to 110 million.

Other countries followed Korea’s example and have rolled out their own drive-through testing sites in selected areas, including Britain, US, and Germany.

In contrast, the Philippines still has no rapid testing kit certified by WHO or DOH’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the country, according to WHO’s situational report on March 18. “Validation processes are ongoing by WHO at global level and by FDA at national level,” it said.

Preparedness, coordinated response

South Korea is just one example of the few countries that seem to be managing the public health crisis pretty well. Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong are also lauded by health experts worldwide for being more efficient compared to other countries.

Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong were among the earliest to report cases of the novel coronavirus outside of China. But Taiwan has so far recorded 108 cases and one death; Singapore 345 cases and 0 deaths; and Hong Kong 208 cases and 4 deaths according to the Johns Hopkins University live tracker as of March 20. The Philippines has recorded more cases (230) than Taiwan and Hong Kong so far, and more deaths (18) in all 3 countries, as of Friday afternoon.

Taiwan, learning from its experience during the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic, acted on the issue as early as January 20 – while sporadic cases were being reported from China, according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “officially activated” the Central Epidemic Command Center to coordinate efforts by the ministries of transportation, economics, labor, and education and the Environmental Protection Administration to identify action points to combat the emerging public health crisis.

Taiwan also started screening passenger arrivals from Wuhan before it confirmed its first case on January 21.

From January 20 to February 24, Taiwan quickly produced and implemented a list of 124 “action items,” including border controls, school and work policies, public communication plans and resource assessments of hospitals.

Singapore, also a country hit by SARS, approached the issue early and quickly as well.

By January 2, just days after China reported the novel coronavirus outbreak, Singapore was already asking travelers from Wuhan to undergo temperature screening. By January 22, Singapore has extended its quarantine measures to all travelers coming from China.

Effective risk communication

Singapore has also been constantly putting out information through official government websites to inform people about the crisis.

“First and foremost, we need to provide information as clearly as possible. Because when people trust the information that we put out is accurate, then there’s no need for that panic. So transparency is important in this regard, and building a high level of trust with our people,” Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee said in a radio interview on March 11.

Similarly, Hong Kong is lauded for its swift implementation of measures against the threat of the coronavirus, which is now seen as an effective way that has slowed down its infection rate.

The Hong Kong government announced its “containment plan” as early as late January, which restricted cross-border transportation and reduced transport services.

Financial Times report said policies such as early travel restrictions, aggressive testing and screening of contacts, and strict quarantine rules have helped manage to “contain the virus in Taiwan and Singapore and reduce or slow infection rates in South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan.”

Travel restrictions, no lockdowns

All these countries, except Hong Kong, have not imposed lockdowns as of writing. Hong Kong went into an emergency lockdown for 3 weeks in January and February.

In contrast, the Duterte government imposed a drastic measure: an “enhanced community quarantine” or lockdown that was first declared in Metro Manila and then expanded to the entire island of Luzon – effectively suspending mass transportation, international travel, classes, work in most sectors, and mass gatherings. (READ: Luzon lockdown: What are the do’s and don’ts?)

The lockdown is expected to last for a month. Some experts, however, warn of a lockdown’s adverse effects on multiple sectors in the country. (READ: Is the Metro Manila coronavirus lockdown bound to fail?)

Doctor Jondi Flavier, son of the former health secretary and senator Juan Flavier, said that instead of a lockdown, a more effective approach for the Philippines would have been the same as Taiwan’s and South Korea’s: adequate testing, suspension of classes, and proper public communication plans.

Ensuring food supply during a lockdown

All over the world, however, more countries have imposed lockdowns as more cases turn up. The first to impose such an extreme measure was China’s Hubei, the first epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the epicenter has since shifted to Europe, with Italy having 41,035 cases and 3,405 deaths as of March 20, based on Johns Hopkins University’s live tracker.

So far, however, the lockdown has worked for China’s Hubei only. China reported no local transmission as of March 20, and authorities are progressively easing the travel curbs.

Meanwhile, countries that are currently on lockdown such as Italy, Spain, and France are not only continuing to report fresh cases, but are also faced with problems of panic buying and hoarding.

The Harvard Business Review said that panic buying and scarcity of supplies also became a problem for Hubei at the start of the lockdown. However, it noted that supplies began to flow into the region “in a matter of days.”

The Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, a state-affiliated think tank, said that the Ministry of Commerce activated a material-supplying mechanism involving 9 provincial authorities, through which basic items, including medical materials, steadily flow into Hubei.

The Harvard Business Review also said that this was facilitated effectively largely due to two factors: digitally-enabled delivery systems and consumer comfort with the online world.

“The combination of consumer digital maturity and digitally supported supply chains has enabled local residents to organize home delivery of essential supplies to people in self-quarantine,” the Harvard Business Review said.

The Luzon lockdown has just started and several areas in Visayas and Mindanao have followed suit. Learning from the experiences of other countries, the needed supplies and resources must be put in place to make sure the Philippines is able to handle the situation and does not descend into chaos. –

*P51.20 = $1
1,260.66 won = $1

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Pauline Macaraeg

Pauline Macaraeg is digital forensics researcher for Rappler. She started as a fact checker and researcher in 2019, before becoming part of Rappler's Digital Forensics Team. She writes about the developing digital landscape, as well as the spread and impact of disinformation and harmful online content. When she's not working, you can find her listening to podcasts or K-pop bops.