Sunday Essay: Emerging

(Sunday Essay Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan)

JUNE, a month we’ve learned to associate with beginnings, will start on an unusual note this year. As Cebu City shifts to general community quarantine (GCQ) after two months under lockdown, some people will feel like they’re taking a first, tentative step into someplace new.

No classes will open, at least not in-person ones. There isn’t going to be any rush to buy school supplies or get new uniforms made. And if there are to be any bridal fairs, the events managers of hotels and the weddings industry’s vendors are probably going to hold them online. June this year will be different, yet it will still be a month of fresh starts.

Here’s the detail that leapt out and made me smile, out of all the stories about GCQ taking effect in several cities.

No less than a Palace official announced that starting on June 7, salons and barbershops may reopen, with limits.

These places will be allowed to fill only one-third of their spaces. They can only cut people’s hair—which makes sense, because how can they provide facials when everyone is supposed to still wear masks in public? How can they give loyal customers the manicures, pedicures, or eyebrow-threading services so many have been yearning for, while keeping a safe distance? For that matter, how many protective layers must barber and customer wear, for a haircut to proceed in safety and peace?

The spaces I am most curious about are jeepneys. Before enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) took effect last March 28, I drove to and from work, across the borders of two cities, five days a week. Not once did I see a jeepney where passengers kept a safe distance—at least 1.5 meters—apart from one another. Even with GCQ in place, it would be safer I think for those working from home to continue to do so, for as long as it’s feasible.

I often wonder why Sweden is being touted as having one of the most effective responses to this pandemic so far. The numbers don’t seem to support it.

As of Saturday, May 29, there have been 4,350 deaths due to Covid-19 in Sweden. In the Philippines, the toll stood at 942 lives, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Here’s another way of looking at it: in the Philippines, there have been 8.4 deaths due to Covid-19 for every one million persons. In Sweden, the figure is 422 deaths per million. (For contrast, there have been 307 deaths per million in the United States.)

Why, given these numbers, do publications like Foreign Affairs say that Sweden’s coronavirus strategy is probably the most prudent way forward? That they could achieve herd immunity—meaning that more than 6 out of every 10 persons has had the virus and recovered from it and thus, no longer pose a risk to those around them—within May?

Sweden, the same article reported, has allowed young children to stay in school. Its government and public health agency have prescribed physical distancing and wearing masks—but on a voluntary basis, without the threat of fines or other punishments.

“Sweden’s response has not been perfect,” Foreign Affairs said, “but it has succeeded in bolstering immunity among the young and the healthy—those at the lowest risk of serious complications from Covid-19—while also flattening the curve.”

We have, as a community, tried to take steps more drastic than those in place in Sweden. We have virtually sealed off our cities, even entire islands, from travelers and all but essential workers. We appear to be bending the curve and doing what had to be done, in the first place: protecting those at highest risk, like the elderly, and containing those who may not show any symptoms yet be fully capable of spreading the virus around, like the very young.

It is still too soon to say we have succeeded. So, we must, for the sake of everyone we care about, continue to take every precaution possible. Keep our distance, wash our hands well and often, limit our contact with the outside world, and do what we can to help protect others.


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