Now there’s more time to ‘flatten the curve’

April 07, 2020

President Duterte's order to extend the enhanced community quarantine until April 30 is a welcome development for those extremely worried of being infected with COVID-19 and possibly dying from the coronavirus wreaking havoc across many countries.

But for the many Filipinos caught unprepared for the sudden lockdown imposed last month and were looking forward to the lifting of restrictions next week to pave the way to normalcy, such extension can be extremely frustrating.

For the millions compelled to stay at home and unable to earn badly-needed income, financial anxiety and uncertainty over the immediate future can be sickening and as scary as being stricken with the deadly virus.

Those without fixed income and who eke out a living in the so-called underground economy like the ambulant peddlers, sidewalk vendors, pedicab drivers, and the like are certainly most vulnerable to the adverse effects of the lockdown. It is to these impoverished sectors that government’s social amelioration efforts must be relentless.

The Philippines and most countries across the world are indeed grappling with not one but two pandemics – the onslaught of the new coronavirus with its escalating death toll, and the effects of the economic devastation from lockdowns that prolong the suffering especially of the impoverished.

“We are feeling the anxiety effects of not one pandemic but two. First, there is the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes us anxious because we, or people we love, anywhere in the world, might soon become gravely ill and even die. And, second, there is a pandemic of anxiety about the economic consequences of the first,” according to Nobel laureate in economics and Yale University professor Robert Shiller who aptly described the situation in a recent article for Project Syndicate.

“It is not good news when two pandemics are at work simultaneously. One can feed the other. Business closures, soaring unemployment, and loss of income fuel financial anxiety, which may, in turn, deter people, desperate for work, from taking adequate precautions against the spread of the disease,” wrote Shiller.

Tackling these “two pandemics” can be very challenging but the ultimate goal of saving lives and keeping people healthy ought to be of paramount importance. Thus, worrying about the adverse consequences of lockdowns to the economy should come later, after measures to effectively protect public health are in place.

“Without a healthy population, there can be no healthy economy,” according to The Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson who wrote an article about a “new playbook for pandemic economics” as he gathered economists’ views on the notion that “opening the economy too soon produces mass death, but shutting it down for too long produces mass suffering.”

In his article for The Atlantic, Thompson put forth the idea that an economic recession is a welcome development at this time when widespread lockdowns across the world are in effect.

“We should—as incomprehensible as this may sound—hope for a deep, short recession, caused by a cliff dive in many forms of economic activity. That would be a clear signal that people have gone home and that the face-to-face economy has been shut down to limit the spread of disease,” Thompson explained.

He cited the view of MIT professor and economist Emil Verner who said pandemics are “so disruptive that anything that you can do to mitigate that destructive impact of the pandemic itself is going to be useful.”

Thus, extension of the Luzon-wide community quarantine and the imposition of lockdowns in other areas of the country to contain the spread of COVID-19 would be useful, despite being disruptive, to “flatten the curve” as epidemiologists call it, with the curve referring “to the projected number of people who will contract COVID-19 over a period of time.”

“The curve takes on different shapes, depending on the virus's infection rate. It could be a steep curve, in which the virus spreads exponentially (that is, case counts keep doubling at a consistent rate), and the total number of cases skyrockets to its peak within a few weeks,” according to a recent article by Brandon Specktor in Live Science. “Infection curves with a steep rise also have a steep fall; after the virus infects pretty much everyone who can be infected, case numbers begin to drop exponentially, too.”

The Live Science article further explained: “The faster the infection curve rises, the quicker the local health care system gets overloaded beyond its capacity to treat people… A flatter curve, on the other hand, assumes the same number of people ultimately get infected, but over a longer period of time. A slower infection rate means a less stressed health care system, fewer hospital visits on any given day and fewer sick people being turned away.”

With the extension until April 30 of the enhanced community quarantine, many experts believe that there is now more time to “flatten the curve.”

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