moving to the new normal with covid 19 inquirer - Moving to the 'new normal' with Covid-19: Inquirer

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER) – The clamour to ease quarantine restrictions to the most relaxed alert level 1 has come mainly from the private sector.

Business groups are eager to reopen the economy not only to bring back jobs wiped out by the pandemic but also to recover losses caused by extended lockdowns meant to contain the spread of Covid-19.

The president of the Employers Confederation of the Philippines (Ecop), Sergio Ortiz-Luis, last week noted that businesses are ready for alert level 1 as workplaces have already adopted the required health protocols. Further reopening the economy will also increase the spending capacity of hundreds of thousands of people returning to their jobs, he added.

On Feb 27, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases approved placing Metro Manila and nearby provinces, which account for about two-thirds of the country’s economy, under alert level 1 effective March 1 as indicators showed that the worst was over for the Omicron-fueled surge noted in late December to January.

Under alert level 1, all establishments can operate at full capacity, workers can physically go to their offices, and activities and events can be conducted at full-seating capacity even for indoor venues, provided that minimum health standards are followed. This is what the government has described as the “new normal.”

As many areas move to alert level 1, however, there are a number of risks that need to be addressed to prevent another spike in Covid-19 cases which could again trigger debilitating lockdowns.

Of particular concern is the enforcement of health protocols during campaign sorties in the run-up to the May 9 national elections. The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) was reluctant to support the move to alert level 1 due to the risks of another virus surge from election activities, especially with the start of the campaign season for local elective posts on March 25.

Even the Philippine National Police has admitted that it would be a challenge to ensure compliance with minimum health protocols, especially social distancing in big crowds drawn by the campaign rallies. DILG Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya also noted that once the campaign period for local candidates starts, “it will be much more difficult to enforce the minimum public health standards.”

Then there’s the issue of the inadequacy of public transport when employees return to their workplaces as more business establishments reopen. Ecop’s Ortiz-Luis noted that the virus was being spread more by workers going to and from the workplace, than within the workplace itself.

It is thus incumbent upon businesses to provide a risk-free working environment while ensuring the safe movement of their employees by providing a shuttle service whenever possible. Employers and owners of commercial establishments should strictly enforce compliance with required public health protocols (particularly the wearing of masks, physical distancing, the washing of hands, and avoiding mass gatherings), and actively promote vaccination among their staff and personnel, as well as booster shots for those fully vaccinated.

As part of the post-pandemic “new normal,” employers must consider work-from-anywhere or hybrid work arrangements that would bring higher efficiency and productivity.

The government, for its part, has the more difficult task of making sure that downgrading to alert level 1 will be safe and sustainable. Political rallies and campaigns must be monitored and sanctions imposed on candidates and their supporters who fail to comply with public health standards. To avoid overcrowding in terminals and inside public utility vehicles, more buses and other for-hire transport should be allowed to ply the streets.

The Department of Transport and Communications should also put in place an efficient, safe, and reliable public transport system for workers of small companies unable to afford a shuttle service.

Meanwhile, local government units must comply with two new conditions before they can be moved to the lowest alert level: at least 80 per cent of their senior citizens should be fully vaccinated, as should 70 per cent of the eligible population in their communities.

At the end of the day, sustaining the new normal will require everyone’s cooperation and vigilance. Far from being the responsibility only of the government and the private sector, the entire community must do its part to keep the virus under control. We can start with strict compliance with the basic health protocols that have been proven to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Individual efforts add up and ensure that people’s health remains firmly within their grasp. This is our only assurance that the new normal will be sustainable and last long enough to bring about economic recovery after two difficult years under a pandemic.

  • The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.