Sunday Essay: Novel public spaces

Sunday Essay Cartoon by Rolan John Alberto

DO YOU find our government’s response to this pandemic strict enough? Or would you rather that its measures be stricter?

In the next few weeks, these measures are going to ease as more attention gets paid to saving jobs, businesses, and the economy.

For some time now, the Philippines has adopted some of the strictest measures against this novel coronavirus that became part of our lives less than five months ago.

On a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being the strictest, we scored 94.58 on the Government Response Stringency Index that researchers in the University of Oxford have devised. The score represents the average of scores across nine sets of measures, including the closure of schools and workplaces. The more restrictions governments imposed on international travel, for example, or on internal movements, the higher their scores.

We scored higher—meaning our measures to fight the spread of Covid-19 were stricter—than India, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea. Our measures were also found stricter than those in Australia, Canada or the United States.

Whether we support this strictness or not depends on how much we trust our government leaders. In any case, how we feel about these measures is almost beside the point. We live with them as best we can.

The researchers behind the index have also emphasized that it simply reflects the number and strictness of the measures taken: “A higher score does not necessarily mean that a country’s response is better than the ones lower on the index.”

The picture gets more interesting when we also look at a separate index, by the same group of researchers, that looks at the number of tests being done in each country.

As a country, we have in the past eight or so weeks adopted stricter measures than Malaysia (74.2 on the Oxford index), Singapore (85.18), South Korea (43.51) or India (76.07). Yet, we have also conducted fewer tests: not a complaint, just an observation.

In Singapore, at least 33 tests were conducted for every 1,000 persons, as authorities tracked where its invisible enemy had hidden. In Malaysia? At least 14 tests for every 1,000. South Korea tested 16 out of every 1,000. We are in the same boat as India, with two tests for every 1,000 persons so far. There was no reliable data for either China or Vietnam.

According to the index, our measures were stricter overall than those adopted in Canada (67.74), the United States (64.81) or Australia (66.14). These countries, however, tested more: 37 tests for every 1,000 in Canada, 40 tests for the same number of people in the U.S. and 46 tests in Australia.

For a closer look at the University of Oxford’s Government Response Stringency Index and the Coronavirus Government Response Tracker, check out:

It would be interesting to see how the index will change in the next few weeks as more countries begin to reopen more workplaces, ease restrictions on public gatherings, allow mass transportation back on the tracks and streets, and lift restrictions on domestic and international travel.

It will sound trite but no country can be too cautious. As of Saturday, Covid-19 has ended 338,431 lives across the planet. More than 5.2 million infections have been confirmed.

One positive development? Most of us have seen our public leaders step up and respond, even if the challenges were massive and the situation often unstable. If we pay attention and listen to informed guidance, we may yet see some improvements in some areas of public governance when we emerge from this pandemic, including:

A deeper appreciation of the need to invest more resources on public health, including infrastructure and health workers’ conditions;

Better-designed public roads and other shared spaces like markets and civic spaces;

Distribution of economic activity so that cities can be decongested; and

More coordination and interdependence among local governments and communities, starting with the alignment of policies and rules where feasible.

Even as we learn to keep our (physical) distance, it’s encouraging to see how this pandemic has compelled public officials to be more creative in bringing government’s services to the citizens that need these most.


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