At the very last minute, the government reversed its announced intention to ease COVID-19 quarantine restrictions in Metro Manila, home to about 13 million people.
The change of heart, which came within a span of only 24 hours, meant the National Capital Region (NCR) would not revert to a general community quarantine (GCQ) on Sept. 8 as announced but remain in the more restrictive modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) until Sept. 15, or until the rules are worked out for a much-ballyhooed pilot test of GCQ with “granular”—bureaucrat speak for street- or building-level—lockdowns.
The abrupt reversal comes as COVID-19 cases, driven by the more infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus, continue to set daily records. On Tuesday, the country logged 18,012 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of infections to 2.12 million. There were 161 new deaths on the same day, bringing the COVID-19 death toll to 34,498. Just days before, new cases numbered more than 20,000 a day, for four straight days, putting a severe strain on hospitals and the people who work in them.
In fact, the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) called for “a timeout”—a period of even more restrictive quarantine measures—to allow the medical community to take a breather from the torrent of new cases flooding into hospitals. Doctors had sought the same relief last year as cases surged in August 2020.
All of this sounds like a good argument for keeping restrictions where they are, but the other side of lockdowns, as we all know too well, is that they hurt people’s ability to make a living. The Department of Labor and Employment estimates that the two-week lockdown in August cost 90,000 workers their jobs—hardly surprising as many businesses were not allowed to operate as a way to limit mobility. The hours during which people could work were also limited by curfews.
No doubt, many of these affected workers and their employers had looked forward to the GCQ as a way to start earning something again. Many of these businesses, too, were making preparations to reopen when the government pulled the rug out from under them with its sudden change of plan.
Given the direction, the pandemic is heading and the slow pace of vaccination—just over 10 percent of the country’s 110 million people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19—there is clearly a good argument for retaining quarantine restrictions.
But the abrupt manner in which the government flip-flopped on the quarantine status hardly inspires confidence among a people already exhausted by a pandemic that has already taken more than 30,000 lives and caused untold economic suffering. Rather, it speaks of an alarming ineptitude that has marred the government pandemic response from the beginning.
There was an excuse for some mistakes made in 2020 because we were all still learning about the coronavirus. Now, more than a year into the pandemic, the authorities really ought to know—and do—better.