As we are still in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are understandably focused on short-term responses that we hope can keep the number of deaths down. With just a week before the Luzon-wide lockdown expires, the immediate question is if we can afford to lift some of the restrictions that have not only kept infections down but also deprived a vast majority of people the means to earn a living.
But those who make the case for a selective lockdown—with communities unaffected by the COVID-19 outbreak being allowed to go back to work—may be working on the wrong assumptions.
Medical experts agree that carriers of the virus may be asymptomatic, so how can we say with any degree of certainty—barring mass testing—that a community is truly COVID-19-free?
Assuming that even just one or two members of that community is an asymptomatic carrier, and that everybody in that community goes back to work, how soon before new outbreaks occur in areas we once believed to be COVID-free? We have all seen how rapidly infections can spread—in the worst cases, doubling every two or three days. What is the danger that a modified lockdown could create new hotspots of infection?
While we certainly agree that we can ill afford the economic cost of a prolonged lockdown, people tend to overlook the fact that there is a huge economic cost as well if we decide to let everybody go back to work and the outbreak worsens. How do we calculate the costs of medical treatment for the thousands of people who will get sick if we act too soon to lift the lockdown restrictions?
Beyond these short-term questions, there may be long-term lessons we might want to consider.
For example, do we want to return to the gridlock that has characterized our public transportation system, or can we incorporate and institutionalize some of the things we learned about enabling workers to work from home? Are there ways to rationalize how we live and work to reduce the chances of another viral outbreak?
The example of the United States may also be instructive for advocates of federalism here. In the United States, we have seen no significant national response to the pandemic, with each state fending for itself, with the unfortunate result that so many weeks into the pandemic, some eight or nine states still have not issued stay-at-home orders that could save lives. Worse, the states are now bidding against each other to obtain scarce medical equipment such as personal protective equipment and ventilators needed to deal with the pandemic, a situation that disadvantages smaller, less economically powerful states. Would a federal system of government here not suffer from the same flaw?
Of course, these questions can be more seriously addressed much later, when we have finally weathered the COVID-19 storm. It is not too early to think about them now, however, from the safety of our own homes.