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[Newspoint] Worse than shambolic

Already tops in the mishandling of the pandemic in our part of the world, we manage yet to outdo ourselves, such that The Economist will have to find a worthier word than shambolic to describe our new feat.

Last week the numbers of cases passed the peaks, and went on rising. But, with an official task force untrained in either public administration or public health leading the fight, what did one expect? As a war council, the task force does possess the look – it is chaired and constituted mostly by ex-generals – but its cluelessness is only compounded by its self-absorbed, authoritarian doggedness. To top it off, untrustworthy numbers are cranked out, tending to minimize the situation and encourage some sense of security, fraudulently.

Testing for infection and tracing it backward and forward have proved most effective, ahead of a vaccine, in containing a spread, but these have never been nearly minimally adequate in our case. Still the impression is given that earnest testing and tracing are going on and the numbers produced from them are the most reliable.

There should be no reason to doubt the reliability of the tests – after all, they are conducted by universal standards, methods, and devices – but the numbers? Indeed, what numbers?

Admittedly, not a few test centers fail to submit their counts on a given day, but the compilers don’t always make a note of these defaults in their daily public tallies. To allay suspicions of any fob-offs, perhaps some reasonably extrapolated number should be assigned each defaulting center and added to the total, and the defaults explained in at least a cautionary footnote.

Anyway, when the numbers began, last week, to hit close to 10,000 a day, the task force decided to impose a lockdown for the succeeding Holy Week (March 29-April 4), but to leave the prospect open for extending it. That grim milepost was itself passed early in the lockdown.

Having done little good as a reflex reply to spikes, lockdown has lost much of its credibility. It is given somewhat of a twist this time, but none more impressive still than the well-worn trick of salesmanship notable for detergents – “new and improved.” The essence of that promotional phrase is contained in the code “NCR+.”

NCR stands for National Capital Region (Metro Manila), and the plus sign for the four provinces next to it – Rizal to the east, Bulacan to the north, and Laguna and Cavite to the south. It makes every sense, concededly, to concentrate the effort at containing the spread of the virus in that region, as enlarged for the purpose: Metro Manila is the country’s premier and most populous region and the most densely populated, too, and those provinces, being contiguous with it, are naturally engaged in a robust exchange with it, socially, economically, and, of course, epidemically.

But isolating the region in a “bubble,” as it were, amounts to nothing alleviating until followed up with purposeful testing and tracing and, just as critically, with subsistence assistance (ayuda) for the poor, whose ranks are swelled by the millions of households deprived of their living. But, already toward the end of the lockdown week, the testing actually fell further short of the daily 100,000 dreamed by the task force, and the tracing was itself slowing, as admitted by the tracing chief himself (called “czar,” like every leader of an operational department under the task force, obviously in keeping with the military context in which the fight against the pandemic is prosecuted).

Sure, the vaccine is here, but the intrinsic life-saving property of that ultimate hope is limited, if not altogether vitiated, by certain circumstances. For one thing, the doses on hand are scarcely enough for a hundredth of the population. The earliest batches were obtained free – one from a facility set up on the initiative of the World Health Organization and two from China.

An exploitative patron but a special favorite of Duterte’s all the same – after ceding our resource-rich and strategic West Philippine Sea to it, need he do more to prove his fealty to it? – China simply cannot hide the strings attached to its vaccine. On the fourth day of the lockdown came China’s third delivery, paid for this time, as the next ones.

Duterte actually has made no deals for any vaccine brands other than China’s Sinovac – and would neither allow private-sector importations of other brands – despite warnings from our own FDA that Sinovac has not proved itself suitable for the elderly, who rank next to the frontliners –doctors, nurses, and other medical staff – as the most vulnerable. Secrecy being a function of the nature of its government, authoritarian China cannot be expected to be forthcoming with a political tool like vaccines. Sure enough, it not only holds back on Sinovac, but stonewalls an international inquiry into the beginnings, traced definitely to its shores, of the pandemic.

This cloud around Sinovac is doubtless one reason for the widespread reluctance to take it, although an aversion to vaccines in general has been likely engendered by allegations, politically tainted apparently and unproven, of serious, even fatal, side effects of Dengvaxia, a dengue vaccine adopted by the previous administration.

As for ayuda, Duterte has been sitting on the proposal for it since the lockdown was a mere plan. And, if the last ayuda is any indication of the promise the next one holds, one can hardly be sanguine about it. Pilferage and confusion have so slowed and limited the distribution that already a year into it many would-be beneficiaries are still waiting for their shares.

One thing the regime cannot be accused of being remiss in is police action. The place is crawling with camouflaged forces and littered with checkpoints, lest the people be mistaken who’s to blame for all this misery. –