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COVID response must be geared toward hastening economic recovery

Midway through the start of the last quarter of the year, the country’s economic managers were focusing on how to pull off a strong finish to what has been a sputtering recovery from the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.

After nearly two months of restrictive quarantine, the capital region now enjoys a “moderate risk” rating — and placed on Alert Level 3 for the first time since the implementation of the granular lockdown approach.

The reproduction rate has gone down to 0.61 according to OCTA Research. This means that each existing infection would cause less than one infection — a clear sign that the virus is on the decline. The positivity rate has dropped from 17 percent to 13 percent. The DOH now projects that by November the daily case count could decrease to just 1,100.

Ironically, while the health indicators are all on the rise, the economic vital signs are not as promising. The revised IMF forecast predicts that Philippine economic growth by yearend will be at 3.2 percent or much lower than the original forecast of 5.4 percent.

Economic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua lamented that the inter-agency task force’s emphasis on containing the virus has led to “other consequences,” such as high unemployment, deep economic recession and diminishing income of Filipinos. Last month, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez characterized the economic team’s “lonely voice” stance in the IATF in “trying to put rationality…to convince people that lockdowns don’t really work for the entire community.”

The IATF is now leaning toward greater access to businesses and services — including tourism, travel and leisure — in the hope that a late surge in consumer spending during the run-up to the Christmas holidays would offset the heavy losses incurred previously.

The gradual reopening of classes — starting from the college level and eventually down to high school and grade school — also bodes well for increasing the tempo of economic activity. This is complemented by the start of vaccination for minors between the ages of 12 to 17 years old.

Gleaning from best practices of economies that have reopened safely, ramping up vaccination and managing the risks from the three Cs — closed, crowded and close contact situations — offer the best possibilities for recovery. Left unstated in the economic managers’ lament are the huge deficits in the quality of overall disease prevention. To date, there is no widely used contact tracing app. Other than in big corporations, systematic testing has not been instituted.

Whenever a new quarantine or alert level is announced, the perennial caveat is that it is subject to other limitations that the local government units (LGU) would prescribe. The net result has been unreasonably strict enforcement that has been bane of previous attempts to jumpstart an economic turnaround.

Finally, the pace of nationwide vaccination — last measured at 22 percent by the country’s vaccine experts panel — is less than a third of the initial target of inoculating 70 percent of the adult population. Drastic improvement is clearly the way forward; otherwise all other gains will at best be short-lived.

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