[OPINION] Conflicting instincts during the coronavirus

Edilberto C. de Jesus
[OPINION] Conflicting instincts during the coronavirus
One expert dismisses travel bans as 'a complete and utter waste of time,' while another says that 'restricting movement does not help'

Crafty and cruel, the coronavirus attacks people by exploiting intuitive human responses. How natural it is to visit loved ones who are sick and to greet them with a kiss, a hug, a touch. But contact spreads contamination; people must suppress this instinct to show love and concern through expected physical signs. 

Lockdown to control contagion is also the intuitive response. Countries from Argentina to New Zealand are closing their international borders and increasingly imposing domestic quarantine. Protecting healthy people by barring their entry into infected areas and the exit of potential virus carriers into still secure spaces appear logical. (READ: LOOK: Scenes across Metro Manila as Luzon lockdown begins)

But experts disagree. Roy Anderson, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College, dismissed travel bans as “a complete and utter waste of time.” Bruce Aylward, formerly WHO emergencies chief and last month’s Team Leader in China, declared, as a “pretty robust principle,” that restricting movement does not help, possibly justified only at the outbreak’s earliest stage. With virus carriers asymptomatic for as many as 14 days, and with most governments having delayed responses, the horses have typically bolted before the barn doors are bolted.

Still, Dr. Clare Wenham, London School of Economics scholar on health regulations, explains the strategy’s popularity: “It is good political placebo.” It allows an impressive show of government activity, even when implementation can cause economic, social public, and public health harm. Photos of massed travelers at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and crowds milling about Manila checkpoints and supermarkets mock warnings to maintain social distance.

Might the mandatory lockdown have fostered rather than weakened conditions for breeding coronavirus infections? (READ: [ANALYSIS] Why Filipinos need to stay at home until June (or even longer))

The human impulse to touch to show love and to impose lockdowns to counter threats is instinctive, but against the coronavirus may be counterproductive. Banning travel to and from Manila denies outsiders access to the resources and the expertise in many sectors, including health, that are more abundant in the capital.

People have also become used to operating within the sprawl of Metro Manila. Wage workers from Cainta did not expect encountering barriers into Quezon City. Exceptions are allowed but delays inevitable. It also devolves decision-making at the discretion of border guards.

Expanding the lockdown from Manila to Luzon is not as perversely problematic as simultaneously permitting its progressive constriction to smaller areas, from the capital region to the barangay. The ultimate logic of lockdowns leaves individuals to deal with the pandemic on their own: quarantine for the patient, the family, the household – only mediated and enforced by the weakest agency of government and the police while prevented from seeking help outside.

This will punish the poorest, weakest sectors of society. What is the government doing now about the coronavirus cases in Baseco and Payatas? (READ: Luzon lockdown: What are the do’s and don’ts?)

South Korea and Singapore practiced selective quarantine but aggressively adopted the WHO priority on locating virus cases and tracing their contacts, conducting tests for accommodating as many as wanted it up to 10,000 and 2000 a day. 


Targeted lockdowns also permitted more direct assistance and more rigorous enforcement. Singapore isolated almost 5,000 cases and imposed criminal charges on violators. It did not confine millions of untested households in their communities.

Concerted response

Meanwhile, the Philippines lacks comparable institutions and resources; the DOH will not test those with only “mild” symptoms outside the “at-risk” population. And we must now accept the community lockdown as a done deed – and strive to convert government compulsion to personal compliance, hopefully, to reduce the cost of enforcement and allow effort and resources to address other concerns.

Such concerns include: providing transport for the sick to get to doctors, personnel to essential occupations, and buyers and sellers of necessary goods to market; or ensuring continued collection of garbage. Surely, such steps could have been announced with the decision to suspend public transport. 

Pandemics do not respect social, gender, economic, ethnic or national divisions. They require a concerted response from all countries and all communities, because the weakness of one endangers all.

The threat, as historian Yuval Harari observes, is not the violation of man-made distinctions among peoples or of boundaries between political or administrative units, but the breaching of the border between the virus and the human species. – Rappler.com

Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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