Let experts take the lead vs Covid-19 – think tank
Re-tooled action plan should also mobilize NGO community leaders
July 31, 2020

A policy think tank today called for a revamp of the IATF by allowing credible medical experts and scientists to also take the driver’s seat in the fight against Covid-19.

The Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), a think tank on political and governance reform, issued this call on the heels of a report by new contact tracing czar, Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong that less than 1% of 600 LGUs that responded to a diagnostic questionnaire sent to 1,900 LGUs have good contact tracing systems.

Of the few contact tracing teams formed, many need to be trained and learn “cognitive interviewing skills” backed by GIS, data analytics, and encoders, Magalong said. The “contact tracing czar” said it will take at least three weeks to capacitate the LGU teams.

Prof. Bobby M. Tuazon, CenPEG’s director for policy studies, said without trained contact tracers particularly in vulnerable LGUs led by the NCR, the country will be on the long haul with new covid-positive cases spiking for weeks and months. Clearly, the military-led IATF has been under-performing for more than four months underplaying the game-changing role of contact tracing and ensuring that this is implemented quickly down the line, Tuazon added.

Tuazon echoed CenPEG Fellows’ appeal made in a two-part webinar on the center’s 12th State of the Presidency (SOP) urging the revamp of the IATF by allowing leading medical experts and scientists to be on board with a decisive voice in re-strategizing the anti-covid approach. They also called for an inclusive approach giving civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGO leaders an active role in the LGUs’ plans for containing the pandemic especially in high-risk areas. CenPEG’s SOP webinar was held on July 25 and 29.

Temario C. Rivera, CenPEG Board chair, said there is still time to remedy pressing governance failures in the fight against Covid-19 by pushing some doable short- and mid-term reforms. These include giving credible medical professionals and scientists a leading role in the IATF along with legitimate people’s representatives in LGU governing bodies. He also called for a radical shift of government resources for universally available services including health, education, housing, social protection for workers, and effective disaster management.

CenPEG Executive Director Evita Jimenez said the Duterte administration should engage and harness the expertise of leaders from CSOs and grassroots organizations with a track record of consistent volunteer service in the communities in public health, disaster mitigation and recovery, and environment, among others.

Instead of isolating and marginalizing them they should be welcomed to take a leading role as change makers in their communities, Jimenez added. She pointed to the case of Tabang Bikol Movement, a broad coalition of concerned groups and individuals that actively engage agencies in addressing the pandemic. The distribution of SAPs has been hampered by patronage politics with local dynasties focused more on the coming 2022 elections instead of serving their constituencies.

Another Fellow, Prof. Roland Simbulan, said science should replace the government’s militaristic approach to Covid-19. Generals at the helm of the IATF were trained to fight wars and therefore are not equipped to handle a pandemic - a public health issue needing scientific leadership and civilian support, he said.

The CenPEG Fellows criticized government’s exclusivist, top-down and often coercive approach in fighting the pandemic with armed troops and police assigned to enforce lockdown measures. Without a meaningful social and inclusive participation, the government’s fear approach cannot succeed, they said. The chilling effect from the passage of the Anti-Terror Law in the time of pandemic has added fear in many communities preventing them from exercising their rights to prompt social services, employment, and other legitimate issues. 

The government should learn lessons from countries that have succeeded in containing the spread of the coronavirus, Tuazon said. Sharing lessons during the SOP webinar, Tuazon pointed to the key drivers in covid containment in Vietnam, Cuba, and China. The key drivers, he said, are communities’ role in quick and systematic response (Vietnam), long-tested community primary care system (Cuba), and community workers and solidarity, highly-developed research and technology (China).

As early as January this year, Vietnam adopted aggressive but cost-effective measures, Tuazon said. Covid tests were focused mainly on high-risk and suspected cases with 350,000 individuals or 0.003% of the country’s 97mln population tested in just a few weeks. For every 1 confirmed case 1,000 were immediately tested – the highest ratio in the world. Local communities were mobilized for extensive contact tracing and transparent communication. With strong community support, Vietnam has been able to limit confirmed covid cases to only 352 – with 0 death, Tuazon added.

In the same webinar, Hector Barrios, CenPEG’s senior fellow on financial and management affairs, stressed that any kind of lockdown must be pursued with a clear plan with concrete targets and timeframe to ensure the careful balancing between health and economic concerns. The administration has only been reactive to mismanaged DOH data leading to the continuing surge in Covid-19 cases.

90% of labor force affected

In the first forum, Ateneo economist Joseph Anthony Lim said that, using the Philippine Statistical Authority’s (PSA) April 2020 Labor Force Survey, up to 90% of the Philippines’ labor force have been fully or partially displaced by the March–May lockdown the government enforced to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lim said that the PSA identified 17.7% of the labor force, or 7.25 million workers as unemployed. He added the “discouraged workers” - 3 million who were unemployed but did not look for work during the lockdown, and therefore were counted out from the labor force by PSA. This brings the unemployment rate to around 22.5%.

Those who had a job but did not work at all in April 2020 increased by around 12.5 million workers compared to April 2019, comprising around 28% of the labor force. Adding this to the 22.5% above, around 50% had no work in April, Lim said.

Out of those employed who actually worked, the number of full-time workers - working 40 or more hours a week - fell from 28.4 million workers to just 9.9 million. This means, that “more than 18 million workers went from full-time to part-time workers” making up around 40% of the labor force in April, Lim said.

Thus, in all nearly 90% of the working force was affected by the lockdown in April, Lim said.

CenPEG is a think tank institution with policy studies and advocacies covering electoral and political party reform, governance, foreign policy, and other public issues.

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