Hello, Lockdown, Goodbye: Exit Strategy for COVID-19

Therese Marie P. Amor

Undeniably, the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), which was imposed by the National Government in the entirety of Luzon, and by different local government units (LGUs) in the other parts of the Philippines, has saved many lives. In its latest report, the University of the Philippines COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team determined that at the time of the imposition of the Luzon-wide ECQ, the virus’ Reproductive Number was hovering at above two to four — the Reproductive Number is used to measure the transmission potential of a disease, and a Reproductive Number of >1 is an indication that the number of cases is increasing. As of April 19, the Reproductive Number in the Philippines is at 1.072. While we have not yet flattened the curve, we can optimistically say that we are slowly getting there.

Undeniably also, the negative economic impact of the imposition of ECQ is quite massive and far-reaching. Not only the private businesses, but even the government is starting to buckle under the financial weight of the ECQ. It comes as no surprise that more and more individuals from the public and private sectors, and even ordinary folks, are advocating for a gradual lifting of the ECQ. To be sure, a shift to normalcy carries with it huge risks. The report from UP COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team warns of an expected surge of COVID-19 cases if the Luzon-wide lockdown is untimely lifted. Thus, the Philippines needs a sustainable exit strategy, which is mindful of both the economy and public health.

One of the aspects of the exit plan which the government must seriously look into is the reopening of businesses and the resultant movement of individuals. With the severity of outbreaks varying markedly across the country, there is a common proposal for the lifting or modification of the ECQ in areas with cases of COVID-19 under control. Under this paradigm, ECQ for low-risk areas are lifted first. The most recent recommendation by the IATF (Inter-Agency Taskforce) favors this kind of geographic segmentation. Another proposal is to implement sector segmentation wherein lower-risk sectors as well as essential sectors of the economy are allowed to reopen.

An important requisite in the implementation of any of these exit proposals is the harmonization of policies issued by different LGUs. Without any collaborative effort on the part of LGUs, the limitation of movement between regions, the enforcement of ECQ in areas still under lockdown, as well as the containment of COVID-19 cases would become major challenges.

The difficulties encountered during the start of the ECQ can actually serve as an illustrative example of the many complications that may arise if policies are not harmonized. When Metro Manila was first placed in a “community quarantine” back in March, the Department of Transportation Task Group’s Guidelines for Management of Emerging Infection Disease required inter-regional public transportation to and from Metro Manila to be terminated at entry points as identified by the PNP (Philippine National Police). This posed a great challenge to individuals residing in the neighboring towns and cities but who worked within the metropolis. Note that at that time, establishments were still allowed to operate. A total of 56 checkpoints at Metro Manila’s different entry points were set up, with police and military personnel performing temperature checks on all passengers. Considering that Metro Manila’s population of 12.88 million swells to around 15 to 16 million during the daytime due to the influx of individuals from neighboring LGUs, it is no wonder that the implementation of these government checkpoints was described to be a “logistical nightmare.” The same problem may arise with the proposed geographic segmentation, as residents from low-risk LGUs may attempt to return to their jobs in LGUs which are still under ECQ and vice versa.

One possible solution to this problem is to enter into reciprocity agreements with other LGUs. This mechanism was previously resorted to by the cities of Cebu, Lapu-Lapu, and Mandaue during the initial stage of the ECQ. Under their reciprocity agreements, cross-border entry of individuals who are exempted from the mandatory stay-at-home orders of the originating LGU was allowed. Further, exempt individuals under the reciprocity agreement were merely asked to show supporting documentation to prove their exempt status. This did away the requirement of securing ECQ passes from different LGUs where the individual would pass through in going to his destination. The clear benefit of these reciprocity agreements is that business establishments which are finally allowed to operate need not worry about their employees being turned away at checkpoints due to conflicting border policies of neighboring LGUs.

Understandably, not all LGUs are willing to enter into reciprocity agreements during the ECQ, especially with an LGU with a burgeoning number of COVID-19 cases. For instance, while the Province of Cebu, just like the cities of Cebu, Lapu-Lapu, and Mandaue, has allowed Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) establishments located within its territorial jurisdiction to continue to operate during the ECQ, BPO employees are not among those individuals who are allowed entry into the Province of Cebu and any of its component cities and municipalities. In effect, a BPO employee who lives in, say, Talisay City, which is within the jurisdiction of Province of Cebu, and goes to work at a BPO in Cebu City, which is outside of the jurisdiction of the Province of Cebu, will not be allowed to go home to Talisay City at the end of his shift even if Talisay City is just adjacent to Cebu City. The rationale for this restriction is valid — that is — to prevent COVID-19 positive individuals from outside the Province of Cebu from inadvertently spreading the virus to any of the latter’s component cities and municipalities.

As a protectionist reaction, it is possible that there may be some LGUs which will continue to impose strict border restrictions even after the implementation of the geographic/sector segmentation. Thus, harmonization of policies and coordination between LGUs is the key. Indeed, a sustainable exit strategy must protect public health, and to the extent possible, prevent a second wave of infection. However, by marooning individuals and keeping employees from going back to work due to strict border restrictions, these LGUs also defeat the very purpose of geographic/sector segmentation, which is to allow the economy to restart and go back to the grind.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. This article is for general informational and educational purposes, and not offered as, and does not constitute, legal advice or legal opinion.

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