Salceda bats for extended ECQ; Luzon not ready to reopen

National, News

As various sectors issue differering opinions on the eventual fate of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) after April 30, House Ways and Means Chairman Joey Sarte Salceda of Albay has maintained his call for its extension “as is”for another two weeks, saying Luzon is not fully ready to modify, let alone, lift, the lockdown.

This development emerges as leading global models in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic successively fell several notches back to where they started, grappling with reinfections, after easing up on community lockdowns, among them, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

“We’re simply not there yet, no matter how much we wish this pandemic to end. It would be almost willful neglect to say that the country can now reopen,” Salceda said, adding that local planners should learn from the experiences of other countries which are even way more technically capable than the Philippines.

In his recent white paper on the ECQ extension, Salceda, who also co-chairs the House Economic Stimulus Cluster, urged the National Task Force (NTF) to recommend re-extending the ECQ for another two weeks after the April 30 deadline, pointing out that the country hasn’t yet reached a “point of justified confidence” in the fight against COVID-19. Reacting to suggestions that policymakers have to choose between health and the economy, Salceda said: “It’s a mischaracterization of the tradeoff; and a short-sighted assessment of the situation, too.”

He described as misguided the idea that the choice is between health damage and economic damage, explaining that there must be no trade off between people’s safety and that of the economy.  “Resurgence will likely be more damaging to both the people’s lives and the economy, and consumer confidence than the initial six-week ECQ was.We are trying to minimize both. At this rate, opening up the country and hoping we will not have to lock it down again is wishful thinking. Let’s finish the job now, when we are already building on some successes, rather than erase those gains and then face a second wave later,” he added.

As of April 20, the country had undertaken around 46,000 tests, with possibly another 80,000 coming by April 30. “Thus, with only 130,000 tests or 0.1% of population, we are most possibly missing many positive, especially asymptomatic cases that are undetected and at large, “ he pointed out, noting that as of April 16, out of 5,660 confirmed cases, only 3,238 were assessed, out of 7,496 possible close contacts. Doubling time for infections hovers at just above 12 days.

“Thus, lifting the ECQ amounts to carelessly exposing the entire population to infection, no matter what residual social distancing efforts they do. Every day, there are about 1.9 billion social contacts in the Philippines, and the ECQ despite all the rule breakers, must have eliminated 80% or a reduction of 1.5 billion,” he noted.

Salceda estimates that the expected monetary value (EMV) of the costs in foregone economic activity and loss of market and consumer confidence from a six-week resurgence in cases, will be   much more significant than the economic costs of another two-week extension. A resurgence, he said, “will likely require a longer lockdown period than the initial March 15 to April 30 ECQ and the country’s economic recovery period will be delayed, while another package of both survival and transitional measures will have to be financed and rolled out.”

“The liquidity of already struggling companies will likely be erased in a viral resurgence, at a time when the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) shall have expended much of its monetary policy tools,”  he added.

In his white paper, the lawmaker proposes that the following conditions be met before lifting of the ECQ is considered: 1) Comprehensive measures to protect at-risk and vulnerable population (people above 65 and co-morbidities);  2) Pervasiveness of low-cost non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as personal hygiene, hand washing, face masks, and social distancing. [Metric: Strict compliance with social distancing, improved access to hand-washing facilities for the 18% of the population with poor access to clean and safe water supply];

3) Full protection for frontliners, including complete personal protective equipment (PPEs), and readiness for peak capacity. [Metric: 15,000 Covid-19 beds, and 4,500 mechanical ventilators; 7-days’ worth of PPE in reserve]; and 4) Adequate testing. No mass testing, no ECQ lifting.

Salceda said “greater care is required in planning and implementing a pathway or pathways towards recovery… the reason why our efforts should strengthen over time, and modifications should not amount to an easing of our efforts in the aggregate, but rather a recalibration towards more efficiency and effectiveness, based on science and facts.”

In the meantime, he said the government will have to consider the liquidity and solvency of firms, facilitating or modifying usual cash flows, including assisting businesses set up for online payments and delivery systems, crafting production and logistics systems that comply with strict social-distancing measures, etc., while also providing alternative modes of liquidity enhancement.

“Publicly listed firms remain able to access market capitalization, and the largest conglomerates have access to sizable credit lines on the merits of good performance in previous years as well as the traditional durability of large conglomerates in the Philippines.    Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) will benefit immensely from the wage subsidy program about to be implemented by the government, but more interventions will likely be needed to allow leveraged enterprises to sustain operations,” he added.

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