2020 Q3

Coronavirus and Me: Encounters and Lessons

Wuhan Who or What?

My first encounter with coronavirus led to my discovery of Wuhan, a city in the province of Hubei in China. Before the virus struck, I hadn’t heard of Wuhan. But when CNN broke the news about the novel coronavirus, it showed footages of the place where it first broke out. And its name was Wuhan.

The video wasn’t even pretty. It showed an unkempt marketplace that sold more than the usual products in a typical public market. It sold exotic animals, including bats for culinary delights. The Wuhan public market, reports said, was frequented by consumers with an exotic taste for bat meat and that of other kindred animals.

The public market thus became the first suspect as the source of the virus. The new virus might have come from the bats and unwittingly transmitted to hapless buyers, who then carried it to other places and people. (A different conspiracy theory featuring the USA intelligence operatives would later dislodge the public market as suspect number one, but that is another story.)

In the following days, thanks to media pick-up, Wuhan became a household name around the globe. Daily reports showed scores of people filling up hospitals in the city and overcrowding emergency rooms and ICUs. The construction of a new hospital dedicated to coronavirus patients had to be rushed and completed in less than a month. Medicines were running out and medical supplies and equipment were in short supply. Public officers ordered people to stay put in their homes. Violators were rounded up by the police. A strict lockdown was imposed on the entire city. No one could get in or out of Wuhan until further notice.

Amidst the signs of panic, a young Chinese doctor named Li Wenliang publicly posted his opinion Wuhan was under threat of a new kind of virus that could be more virulent than the common colds or flu, or even the fancier SARS or MERS. He said that, if unchecked, it could trigger an epidemic. For this, he was arrested by public authorities and banned from further public pronouncements. He himself was later infected by the virus from patients that crowded the hospital where he had worked with great dedication. He died not long after.

Curious about all these happenings, I googled Wuhan. I found out I was so wrong to imagine that it was a backward congested city. In fact, it is a model of urban planning and design (at least when compared to cities that we regularly see in less developed economies), with modern buildings and transportation systems and 5G technology already in place. It is also the hub of the air transport system of China. All major flights leaving China or returning to it originate from Wuhan.

The city thus became the first epicenter for the novel coronavirus. When the lockdown was lifted some three months later and Wuhan was pronounced COVID-free, it became the first complete coronavirus case study. It is now routinely referenced by subsequent and continuing research on the deadly virus, now codenamed COVID-19.  Wuhan will surely never be forgotten.

Caught With Our Pants Down

As the World Health Organization fumbled through its initial prognosis and public announcements, it became evident that the fight against COVID-19 was going to be a long and tedious work in progress.

The Philippine Department of Health put out its usual press releases and caveats to the public against the novel coronavirus later named COVID-19. It announced safeguards that were standard for epidemics that are common to a country like the Philippines.

But soon, it became evident that this was not your regular seasonal virus. The WHO finally recognized the breakout as a global pandemic. It was only then that the Philippine government took more serious notice. This was in early March, or several months after Wuhan.

Many observers think that President Duterte was slow to react and take action. This was, in part, due to his much-ballyhooed special friendly relations with Xi Jin Ping and the Chinese establishment. He is queasy about anything that might embarrass or make his Chinese friends uneasy.

A presidential task force (IATF) was organized to quickly analyze the implications of the disease for the entire country, map out a response action plan, identify the needed budgetary support, obtain legislative support if needed, and strictly implement the plan.

Quite telling was the overwhelming presence of retired military top brass on the task force, a result of the president’s declared preference for appointing people with military background among his government executives. It probably assures him of quicker and more loyal compliance with his instructions.

The epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country was Metro Manila or the National Capital Region. While Metro Manila is the country’s public face for wealth and progress, modernity, and global competitiveness, it also houses the largest concentration of slum dwellers, displaced, and jobless people. These slums host the largest accumulation of waste, pollution, and lack of hygiene and sanitation in congested surroundings.  A perfect situation for COVID-19 to wreak havoc.

Since the immediate need of the moment was to curtail the spread of the virus, the task force chose quarantine, or self-isolation, as the preferred strategy. It would be applied to all suspected or infected persons and even of entire communities.

The quarantine could be general, or enhanced, or moderately general or enhanced, and what-have-you. In plain language, it was a strict lockdown. People were enjoined to stay home and not venture out needlessly.

Metro Manila easily became the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, with its 12 million inhabitants. Businesses big and small; shopping malls, retail hubs, and public markets; schools, offices, and churches; restaurants, resorts, and hotels; public transportation of all forms for land, air, and water transport were all closed down. For those who could, workers were advised to work from home through digital technology. Those who could not were either terminated or put on preventive suspension.

The local governments of the various regions, provinces, and cities were to develop their own action plans, but with strict reference to the IATF overall action plan, and always in coordination with the task force.

A quick inventory of hospitals, medical supplies and equipment, and medical personnel showed that the country had a lot of scrambling and catching up to do.

Immediately needed were testing kits, personnel protective equipment for medical and support personnel – now called frontliners –, and expensive equipment and medicines for ICU treatment of lung, heart, kidney, and liver diseases.  There was a need for special budgets to procure all these badly needed but scarce or non-existent resources. Existing hospitals were not enough, so quarantine centers had to be put up in strategic places.

The IATF said it was essential to interrupt the free flow of goods, services, and people for an indeterminate period, depending on the hoped-for availability of an effective vaccine or medicine against the virus. Public transportation had to be curtailed. Flights and land and sea trips were canceled.  Egress from and ingress into entire communities, and mobility within communities, was banned.

Congress met and quickly passed a special law entitled with a patriotic-sounding name:  Bayanihan to Heal As One Act.

It gave the president special powers to quickly sidestep, or go around, existing policies and strictly enforce action plans, guidelines, and rules, without having to declare martial law. More importantly, the law appropriated some Php 300 billion for immediate release in order to provide some economic stimulus for business establishments that would be forced to cease or slow down operations, and for workers who would be laid off or inhibited from work. It would also provide a social assistance program (SAP) in the form of cash and in-kind dole-outs to poor families in all barangays or villages.

The Costs of the Blind Leading the Blind

One important lesson gained from the coronavirus experience is, that good intentions do not mix well with surprise, ignorance, and panic.  The damage and cost to the economy by the draconian measures purportedly to enforce the lockdown has been humongous and incalculable.

Quarantine measures continue to be imposed by bureaucrats who seem woefully out of touch with realities on the ground. How do you explain allowing people to return to work while restricting the means of transportation that will take them to their places of work and back to their homes? How does it make sense that people are even under threat of arrest for massing and congregating and not observing physical distancing when they have no choice but to wait in long queues in overcrowded waiting areas because the public vehicles they need may or may not come at all?

There is this growing sense among the people that the rules and guidelines being imposed on them are largely based on a guessing game by clueless bureaucrats whose jobs and salaries are assured no matter what. There are restrictions that simply don’t make sense from a scientific point of view.

There is now a palpable decline in the trust level of people. Many are wondering if there could have been some other less damaging, but still effective way of mitigation and containment leading to effective treatment if only the officials managing the situation had been less partisan and insecure about their power, but more knowledgeable, competent, dedicated, and morally upright.

The pity of it all is that, after four months of lockdown measures, the rate of infection continues to hover at high levels. The medicines and medical supplies and equipment in hospitals and quarantine centers are still in short supply.  There are even talks of overpricing in the purchases made by the agencies concerned.

The testing, tracing and treating of suspects and actual cases of infection is still inadequate given the local and national demographics. People are still asking where all those specially appropriated billions of funds went. And now billions more are being asked. Funds that may no longer be available unless the government borrows massively from other sources.

What is clear is that our economy has been severely damaged and may not recover for a long time.

As of this writing, the much-ballyhooed two-decades-long, uninterrupted growth of the Philippine economy has come to a screeching halt. Its GDP growth rate and international credit rating that were the envy of other countries for close to two decades until coronavirus struck are being reversed. Current analysis now traces the growth pattern to below zero, and the credit rating several notches down. Recession is showing for the first time since we overcame the financial crisis of 1998.

The socio-economic reversals spawned by the tailspin of the Philippine economy are immense. The hard numbers are still pouring in. Verified estimates will probably not be available until the last quarter of this year. What is clear is that any signs of recovery will probably not be seen until late 2021, or even much later.

How long will our people suffer in silence before they explode from sheer hardship, frustration, and despair?

On the Bright Side

But not everything has been bleak. Speaking only for myself, the past four months have brought some small but significant blessings.

After neglecting regular physical exercise for almost two years, the lockdown has motivated me to take morning walks for Vitamin D from the sun. The leisurely walks around the village (we cannot meander outside the limits of the village without proper passes that are hard to get) are a pleasant way to recite and meditate on at least two sets of mysteries of the Holy Rosary.

My wife has also been able to manage my diet more effectively. It seems to me that she is feeding me more frequently than when I was going to the office regularly. The truth is she is also cutting down the amount of my daily intake. As a result, I am now sometimes asked what did I do to trim down.

One painful effect of the lockdown was the closure of our churches. It’s been a while since we were able to go Mass and receive Holy Communion. This drove us to find some other means of attending the Eucharistic celebration even if we have to be content with only spiritual communion for now.

We were able to discover Masses and religious activities being live-streamed on the internet. Of course, they will never be the same as the real thing live. But there have been some pleasant discoveries. For instance, we have attended Masses celebrated by globally well-known religious leaders and spiritual mentors who hail from different countries in the world. Some of their homilies have been truly inspiring.

One pleasant discovery is EWTN channel TV. Thanks to this channel, the family is now able to attend Holy Mass every evening in the comfort of our home. This regular TV Mass by the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word is prepared so well and is conducted unhurriedly, always with great and inspiring sacred music by an obviously well-trained choir. Their liturgical observance leans towards a more conservative style. I find their mixed use of English and Latin quite to my liking.

This daily Mass has enabled me to re-discover the solemnity and prayerful mood of Gregorian chant. The EWTN choir sings both Gregorian and polyphonic music really well. But their Gregorian chant has re-awakened by memory bank of long-forgotten monastic practices. Now and then, I find myself chanting along with the choir as we attend the Mass. I am surprised that I am generally able to follow the lyrics and the tune. The family and I get a kick when they hear me chanting along with the Franciscan choir.

I am also now becoming familiar with digital online meetings, particularly with the use of the ZOOM app. I don’t think I will ever become adept, but I get along enough to be able to attend and enjoy diverse meetings with multiple groups of business and social colleagues and associates. Already I have attended and even spoken at relatively huge gatherings, such as Rotary district assemblies and conferences. I have taken part, and even moderated several webinars as pilot tests, and it looks like we will include these types of gatherings in our regular business practice from hereon.

Thus, as people continue to refer to the “new normal”, I am discovering alternative ways of employing time and other important resources. It is clear that we can do some of the regular things we used to do before the pandemic differently, with less waste of time and effort and a more pleasant disposition. I am actually getting to like the adjustments, modifications, and re-arrangements.

Much of these new norms and practices depend on excellent technological back-up. And for this, I humbly and gladly turn to the young for help and leadership. It is time for the millennials to take on more responsibility and take an active part in shaping the future of our institutions.

It is, indeed, such a relief to think that I don’t have to waste time and feel harassed by Metro Manila traffic any more. There are other easier, more pleasant, and less expensive ways to carry on with our business from hereon.

If only for this, I cannot complain too much about COVID-19. It has been a blessing in disguise in several significant ways.

Jaime A. Cura

"Fray Jimmy" is a schooled educator, professional manager, and public communicator. He has served at the helm of various government institutions and private corporations. A former national president of the influential Chamber of Real Estate and Builders’ Associations, Inc. and the ASEAN Association for Planning and Housing, he is currently vice-chairman of the RGV Group of Companies and consultant to various real estate development companies. He has also served as trustee and vice-president of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines. Jimmy is also an active Rotarian of 38 years. He served as president of the Rotary Club of Rizal West in 1984-85 and, later, as Governor of Rotary International District 3830 in 2005-06. He is a Paul Harris Fellow and multiple donor of The Rotary Foundation. Jimmy is a frequent speaker and resource person in meetings, conferences, and seminars in or outside the Philippines. He has written many articles on Rotary topics and contemporary concerns. Jimmy has been married to Luz V. Cura for more than 40 years. They are blessed with three children – PJ, James, and Claudine. PJ is married to Frency Lacsamana, but still childless. James remains single. Claudine is married to Matthew Guerrero, by whom she has a son named Manolo Jaime Cura Guerrero, or Manu, for short.

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