Abellanosa: Lockdown ‘versus’ distancing

Abellanosa: Lockdown ‘versus’ distancing

THE emphasis is on the word “versus.” Interrogatively put, are lockdown and distancing the perfect combination at all times? More simply: if the goal is to decrease the probability of viral transmission, is lockdown the all-out solution in all circumstances?

These questions are asked in order to highlight that while lockdown and physical distancing are specific approaches to address the pandemic, the combination of both may not be a good solution to the problem. In fact, local governments or whoever is in charge of running the whole show should ask whether the combination of both is not the reason why transmission continues to increase.

Lockdown is an effective approach in at least two general situations. One, no one in the area or sitio is positive, thus, preventing them from moving out spares them from getting sick. Second, many people in the sitio are positive and not allowing them to move out contains the virus, which is preventing it from spreading to others. However, the second scenario requires mass testing and increased medical attention for those who have the virus.

A significant problem is this: cities are locked down but distancing is impossible within the barangays. Our officials are now using the term “granular lockdown” which sounds somewhat sophisticated. Can we lessen the transmission by just fencing people in an area that does not allow them to observe social distancing? The presence of force, whether military or police, surely sends the message that the government is serious. This however is not enough and must be complemented with other strategies.

It is the World Health Organization no less that keeps on reminding people to avoid “high density and populous places to prevent the transmission of Covid-19.” The Department of Health strongly urges the public to stay at home and limit their outside exposure to essential activities. As has been said: “the Covid-19 virus does not take a day off. The risk of contracting the virus remains real.” Health officials regularly remind us to: “always observe physical distancing and avoid large crowds.”

We need not conduct another scientific research in order to just descriptively present the status of sitios and barangays as far as spacing and housing are concerned. Can you expect eight people who are locked in a thirty-square meter room to still observe physical distancing? Replicate this situation in many of the sitios and barangays in the country, and it should not be difficult to figure out why cases continue to increase. Other provinces may have decreased the past days or weeks but, still, such is not a reason for early jubilation.

That is why “stay at home” cannot also be the all-out solution. Why? Because literally and practically some people cannot just stay at home. The fact that the government continues to give quarantine passes means that movement is a reality and cannot be avoided. Because people continue to go out, the best that can be done is to make sure that those who went out or those who are always out would not come in close contact with those who didn’t thus, again, distancing.

This brings us to one component of the solution which has not been factored in by the government: “decongestion.” Apparently, there is a need to decongest an area first before people can be expected to follow physical distancing. If you tell people to move or stay away from each other, they should be given enough space to follow the order.

Is it not possible to relocate or evacuate some families to the nearest school or church for two weeks to a month? Moving people for reasons of emergency is not new. It is done to sitios or barrios affected by fires, typhoons, and earthquakes. The situation where we are in is one that can be considered as a disaster and thus calling for emergency response. This being the case why can’t people be made to leave their households and transfer to spaces where distancing and containment can be surely achieved? Ideally, this should have been done earlier.

Decongestion was part of the strategy employed in some cities of India and Africa when they were badly hit by epidemics. Many urban planners have been suggesting governments to rescale spaces as part of risk reduction and disaster preparedness. Thus, in a time of the pandemic, it is effective to lock down a city or a barangay on the condition that it is not densely populated so that people would have no reason not to observe physical distancing.

No less Thomas Jefferson described great cities “as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man” and now we are experiencing what he meant by this.


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