President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered his government officials to continue discussions on whether to lift, extend or modify the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said on Tuesday the President issued the directive following a meeting with some members of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) on Monday.
“It’s not an easy decision to come up with. We still have time for the President to give his decision. In fact, we’re looking at the entire week to give the President some leeway and time to make a decision kasi April 30 is next week pa naman,” Nograles said in a televised briefing.
“We just need to put more meat into the possible decision points of the President,” Nograles also said.
Duterte sought guidance from medical experts, composed of epidemiologists and virologists, and former secretaries of the Department of Health (DOH).
The Luzon-wide quarantine, which began on March 17, entailed sweeping restrictions on travel and mass gatherings as well as closure of schools and most businesses.
It was supposed to end on April 13 but Duterte extended the ECQ until April 30.
Albay Representative Joey Salceda called for a two-week extension of the quarantine since the country has far conducted only thousands of tests.
“Lifting the enhanced community quarantine amounts to carelessly exposing the entire population to infection, no matter what residual social distancing,” he said.
Party-list lawmakers Alfredo Garbin of Ako Bicol and Mikee Romero of 1-PACMAN suggested a modified ECQ to allow the agriculture and manufacturing industries to resume operations after April 30.
Meanwhile, as a martial law-type ECQ looms with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) getting ready for possible takeover to enforce the lockdown, senators expressed varying opinions on the lifting or easing of the lockdown.
Once the Luzon-wide lockdown has been lifted on April 30, senators believe that a modified ECQ would be better to balance the country’s economic and public health interests.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has ordered the deployment of more military troops to implement more strictly the Luzon-wide lockdown.
Lorenzana issued the directive as the Philippine National Police (PNP) on Sunday said over 130,000 people have so far violated guidelines on the ECQ nationwide imposed to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.
AFP chief of staff Gen. Felimon Santos Jr. was tasked to mobilize troops in Metro Manila, particularly in highly-infected areas following reports of residents drinking on the streets, holding cockfights, and violating social distancing protocols.
Senator Joel Villanueva said there are several things that the government should consider in deciding on whether to lift or to extend the quarantine.
Based on the data presented by the UP COViD Response Team, he said there are areas in Luzon where quarantine can be lifted because they are far from having an outbreak.
In areas like NCR, Cebu, Bulacan and Davao City, Villanueva cited the need to look at economic considerations in exempting some sectors from the quarantine but with the caveat that they will practice the social distancing, hand washing and sanitizing protocols and conducting regular random testing in these sectors.
He noted that the UP School of Economics refers to this sector as the “super spreaders.”
“They have high impact to the economy but also have high impact in spreading the disease,” said Villanueva, chair of the Senate labor committee.
“We can let them operate but on the condition that they will comply with very strict protocols,” he said.
He cited as examples the construction sectors, logistics and food production.
“We can do micro area quarantine like barangay or municipal level but it will depend on the capacity of the LGUs to test and isolate infected individuals and the capacity of the health system in the area, said Villanueva.
Senator Sonny Angara noted that it needs a reasonable compromise.
He said ports are open and operating and food should be free to move around the country as an absolute essential.
“Whatever the decision of the president is must be announced with some lead time especially if it involves some lifting or relaxation of the ECQ since preparations must be made on the ground,” he added.
Senator Manny Pacquiao said the lifting of the ECQ would depend on the country’s mass testing capacity.
“My personal opinion is, unless we have conducted mass testing among Filipinos, it would be better to extend the ECQ even just a little longer for the safety of the public,” he said.
Senators Panfilo Lacson, Win Gatchalian, and Bong Go opted for modified ECQ that is still compliant with social distancing.
“While we value the primacy of life and public health, it cannot be denied that the country’s economy should not be ignored,” stressed Lacson.
He proposed that a risk assessment and action plan be conducted to produce a “clearer picture of the impact of an extended lockdown moving forward to a post-April 30 scenario or even after.
Lacson cited data from the UP School of Economics, which showed that 70 percent of the country’s workforce are in the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), which accounts for at least 30 percent of the economy
In Metro Manila alone, he said at least 250,000 people from that sector are suffering from lost income.
Gatchalian said the enforcement of a modified ECQ should still depend on the analysis and recommendations of public health and medical experts, as well as scientists, and the flattening of the country’s COVID-19 curve.
Modifying the ECQ should also depend on whether or not the country’s testing capacity nationwide could reach from 15,000 to 20,000 per day.
Go said he favors extending the ECQ in the National Capital Region beyond April 30 due to the increasing cases of COVID-19 here.
Go said additional data can now be obtained from cities with the country’s testing capacity increased.
Go, who is known to be very close to President Rodrigo Duterte, however, did not specify as to how long the lockdown would be further extended beyond its second deadline.
Government is also eyeing a possible extension or modified implementation of the lockdown based on some proposals by the business and economic sectors.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said he expects that the ECQ could be extended while areas that do not have any transmission of the disease can be placed under a modified community quarantine.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said an extension of the ECQ would be possible if mass testing would not be implemented immediately.
Meanwhile, Senator Sonny Angara said preparations should be done before the relaxation or lifting of the quarantine./Stacy Ang