Metro Manila mayors have all agreed to keep their respective cities, and one town, under general community quarantine or GCQ for the rest of 2020. This was according to Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año. In this line, perhaps we shouldn’t expect any more monthly announcements on changes in restrictions in this fourth quarter, or until 2021.
Movement will also continue to be restricted for those under 18 and over 65, while curfew hours have been adjusted to midnight to 5 a.m. And, no Christmas parties, according to the Interior Secretary, to avoid further spread of COVID-19. In this regard, perhaps it is safe to assume that GCQ status will stand even if COVID-19 cases continue to go down in the National Capital Region.
Of about 360,000 COVID-19 cases in the country, more than half or about 181,000 cases are in Metro Manila. And, according to researchers from OCTA Research Team, the cities of Makati and Mandaluyong in Metro Manila; Baguio in the Mountain Province in Northern Luzon; and, Lucena in Quezon in Southern Luzon are the current top high-risk areas for COVID-19 based on rising average number of new cases daily and rising critical care occupancy.
The OCTA Research Team is a research group composed primarily of UP faculty members and alumni. Its research team also includes contributors from the University of Santo Tomas and Providence College in the United States of America. OCTA has been under fire recently from the government for publicizing its research findings and quarantine recommendations.
Based on its latest research, as reported by GMA News, Makati City is said to top the list of high-risk areas as it averaged 59 COVID-19 cases daily from Oct. 11 to 17. The “Attack rate” was at 10%, while critical care occupancy in city-based hospitals was at 79% as of Oct. 16. The report indicated that an “attack rate” of 7% or below was “safe.” Attack rate refers to the percentage of people who get sick relative to size of population.
Baguio City came in second during the same period with 39 COVID-19 cases recorded per day and a higher attack rate of 11.1%. Mandaluyong City came in third with 34 COVID-19 cases per day, but a lower attack rate of 8%. Lucena City in Quezon came in fourth place with 24 COVID-19 cases per day and an 8% attack rate. In the top 10 high-risk areas as well were Pasig City, Iloilo City, Pasay City, Marikina City, Ilagan in Isabela, and Batangas City.
OCTA is concerned that high-risk areas “may experience an overwhelming of their healthcare systems and their medical frontliners in the coming weeks.” They also noted the urgent need by some cities “to further intensify their efforts at testing, tracing, and isolation to reverse the increase of transmissions at the community level,” GMA News reported. “They need to implement more aggressive and effective localized lockdowns with stricter border controls to suppress further viral transmissions.”
As a resident of Makati City, I view the OCTA report with concern. Makati is a sort of melting pot, where hundreds of thousands of people go through the city daily for work and business and to access services and goods. In fact, I would even suspect there are more transients or “visitors” in the city during the day than there are residents given that many Makati residents also work outside the city.
Some references indicate that Makati City is the 16th largest city in the country and has a population of almost 600,000 residents with about 19,000 residents per square kilometer. But the daytime population is estimated to be more than one million during a typical working day because of the large number of office employees and service providers coming in for work.
Perhaps it takes only one or two sick people from outside the city to infect maybe about 10-20 city residents while at work or in public transportation. And those 20 others can easily infect even more people as they go home at the end of the day. In this line, an average of 59 cases daily in the city is not difficult to reach. Of course, as more people come in and out of the city, it becomes more difficult to strictly enforce quarantine restrictions and health protocols.
And this was precisely why I wrote last week that I received with cautious optimism the news that the national government would be easing restrictions on public transportation and increasing train capacity. The intention, of course, is to improve mobility particularly to and from work. This was to coincide with easing age restrictions and curfew hours, to encourage economic activity.
But I also noted that all these initiatives would pose a major challenge: how local governments can continue to effectively ensure public health and safety. I noted that at some point, particularly at the start of easing, we may see an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in work areas. Allowing more people to move around also gives the COVID-19 virus a free ride around town.
As I had written, I am not privy to data on whether people are more likely to get sick at home, at work, or while commuting to and from work. But, from experience, it seems fewer people got sick when most everybody was made to stay home. And that the number of cases started to go up as soon as we started easing restrictions. And, most of those getting sick appear to be of working age.
Makati City faces a difficult choice. Stricter border controls are definitely out of the question, given the sheer number of non-residents working in the city. There is also a big flow of residents going to work outside Makati. Even localized lockdowns will just be as difficult to implement if we are to consider people’s need to earn a living and to access basic goods. Also, at best, a local lockdown cannot last more than two weeks, and will require economic and social support from the city.
Instead of locking down, the city may have to consider ramping up efforts at testing, tracing, and isolation. I truly believe it is already doing what it can. But, given that Makati remains a high-risk area, then perhaps even more should be done in this regard.
However, to succeed, the city requires the cooperation of people. I notice that many are becoming complacent nowadays, with the easing of restrictions. Some don’t even bother to fill up contract tracing forms at offices or business establishments.
If over the next few weeks the Makati numbers continue to rise, especially as more public transportation becomes available, then maybe the city will have to review its current initiatives. Strictly following health protocols and quarantine restrictions can go only so far in effectively protecting residents and visitors. We should consider other approaches to containing viral spread.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council