Was Manila's lockdown preventable?: Inquirer columnist

In his article, the writer slams the Philippine government for its recklessly lax policy on allowing people from the heart of the emerging pandemic to enter the country at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak.

A man walks on an empty road in Makati City, in the Metro Manila region of the Philippines, on March 17, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Manila, the heart of an ancient kingdom and once the throbbing heart of global commerce, is now the first capital city in the entire region to come under collective quarantine.

Officially, it's called a "community quarantine"; others, including the President, have suggested it's effectively a "lockdown."

Despite a surge in Covid-19 infections, neither Singapore nor Vietnam has been forced to impose comparable measures.

Jakarta and Bangkok, two heavily congested capitals with comparable levels of development to Manila, have so far shunned a collective quarantine.

In fact, no country in the entire world has been forced to first place its administrative and commercial capital in a virtual lockdown.

In the case of Italy, the government began by placing small towns under quarantine, then, weeks later, larger northern cities such as Milan, before the whole country slid into a dystopian lockdown.

In contrast, the Asian democracies of South Korea and Taiwan have jettisoned lockdown in favor of a proactive, collaborative, and public information-driven campaign with remarkable success.

Singapore and Hong Kong, meanwhile, were able to nip the epidemic in the bud through robust preventative measures.

Thus, the question: Why Manila? How did we arrive at this point? Wasn't this preventable?

The American poet Frank O'Hara once wrote: "In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love." In the same vein, it's precisely in times of crisis when we must all decide if we are willing to put up with incompetence over and over again.

Watching President Duterte's long, meandering speeches on the coronavirus, one gets a feeling that what we are dealing with is not a Faulknerian stream of consciousness.

This is not the dark, authentic innocence of Benjamin (Benjy) Compson in "The Sound and The Fury" (1929).

Instead, sifting through the President's inchoate speeches in the past few years, one gets a feeling that what we are dealing with is Freudian subconscious projected onto the national scene.

Think of his rambling explication on the bubonic plague and the Pax Romana epoch. Or his bizarre gratitude to the Chinese regime, which heavily bungled the epidemic's early containment amid a systematic cover-up and terribly delayed response.

One wonders if we have ever been in safe hands in the past four years.

Dubbed as a "strong leader" by his supporters, this is the same leader who failed to prevent the months-long siege of Marawi, the country's largest Muslim-majority city, by a bunch of ragtag extremists.

This is the same "decisive leader" who has overseen the exodus of foreign investors, with the Philippines becoming the only Southeast Asian country to post negative net foreign direct investment inflow in recent years.

This is the same "strong leader" who kept deafeningly silent when a suspected Chinese militia vessel almost drowned 22 Filipino fishermen, while threatening to sever our only treaty alliance following a travel ban on one of his cronies.

And, three years into his infamous drug war, we are yet to convict a single real "big fish." This is perhaps what "subconscious governance" looks like.

Almost two months ago, we repeatedly warned the government against its recklessly lax policy on people coming in from the heart of the emerging pandemic.

A week into the Wuhan lockdown, the Philippines' health secretary rejected calls for robust travel restrictions on Chinese citizens, because of "political and diplomatic repercussions."

The President, meanwhile, never shunned his penchant for China, and declared his unwillingness to dial down both the influx of tourists and his enthusiasm for "clean" online casinos and other forms of shoddy investments in the country.

Flights from China reportedly continued throughout the epidemic's spread across the world. One can imagine the infinite loopholes in the system with the continuing illegal entry of Chinese citizens employed in the sprawling online casino industry in the Philippines,

The current collective quarantine was preventable. Unlike Italy and Trump's America, which also bungled the preventative phase, this country sorely lacks the basic infrastructure to cope with such epidemics.

Prevention was the Philippines' best and only hope.

Short on test kits, which China has provided en masse to allies such as Iran and developed countries like Spain, Philippine health authorities seem to be mostly in the dark, the government lacking any credible estimate of the true extent of the crisis.

The country's future, as in Freud's subconscious world, is dark and unknown.

The writer is an opinion columnist with the paper. The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.

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