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Shuttered shops on deserted ghostlike streets; malls open only to those age 20-60; orders to stay inside or risk arrest; people begging for food from their tattered front porches; workers who were living hand-to-mouth even before getting laid off from low-paying jobs; staring at the same walls day after day under virtual house arrest with no indictment, no defense and no end in sight. Oh yes, and the imminent collapse of the word economy.
There are other things that scare me, of course, and one of them is an invisible microbe that jumps from host to host inflicting pain and death without mercy or remorse. Until recently, that was the greater of my fears; that this terrible disease would attack me, someone I love, or, well, anybody else who’s loved and alive. Lately, though, I have to admit to feeling some ambivalence on that score; which is worse, the disease or its cure?
There’s another concern as well, a new one that has emerged gradually and with growing alarm; just how quickly and easily the world’s population has been cowed by fear. There are conspiracy theorists who insist that Covid-19 originated as a biological weapon manufactured by the Chinese. I don’t believe that for a second, though there is some evidence that it may have escaped from a lab in Wuhan. Whatever the truth, here is my fear; that, even if this outbreak isn’t a weapon, it has provided the world with the blueprint for one that could be deployed globally with greater effect than has ever been seen
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; the issue right now is whether or not to re-open and, if so, just how quickly and to what extent. In my native United States, that question has come dramatically to the fore, with residents in several states taking to the streets to protest what they consider a prolonged and overreaching curtailment of their basic human rights. After some bickering back-and-forth, President Trump pretty much left decisions regarding re-opening to individual states and, indeed, some governors have already begun the process with varying degrees of speed and success. As does almost everything in the U.S. these days, though, the issue has taken on harsh political overtones, becoming a subject of heated debate.
The same discussion is going on here in the Philippines, though so far with somewhat less drama. President Duterte recently ordered a two-week extension of the lockdown in certain high-risk areas including metro-Manila. At the same time, though, he declared an end to the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) of low-risk regions including, to my great relief, my own province of Surigao del Norte. So even though there might still be restrictions, it seemed finally that there was at least the hint of a flickering light at the end of the tunnel.
In this Age of Covid, however, nothing is certain; apparently our provincial governor, despite the President’s directive, has ordered an extension of the local ECQ, a decision with which our city mayor agrees. So, unfortunately, that proverbial dimly-lit tunnel may yet be a bit longer than I’d anticipated or hoped.
Here’s what makes all this so critical; the decision on opening up, whichever way it goes, could have consequences that are utterly dire. In a recent space of five weeks, about 26 million Americans – 16% of the country’s labor force – filed for unemployment benefits; an unprecedented number in such a short span. That, in conjunction with the government’s bailout measures, prompted the Congressional Budget Office to forecast a $3.7 trillion deficit, 5.6% economic contraction and unemployment rate of nearly 12% by year’s end. Others have predicted unemployment of up to 25%, a rate unparalleled since the Great Depression of 1929.
Nor will the rest of the world, including the Philippines, be spared. Last week, according to The Manila Times, the United Nations warned that the ongoing pandemic closures could trigger famine in many countries already vulnerable to such calamities. The economic impact of the pandemic, the UN’s World Food Program said, could result in a “humanitarian catastrophe,” with the number of people suffering from acute hunger nearly doubling to 265 million this year. “We are on the brink of a hunger pandemic,” the agency’s director reportedly told the UN Security Council in a video conference.
All of which prompted one newly unemployed denizen of New Delhi, India, to tell the New York Times that, “Instead of the coronavirus, the hunger will kill us.”
Opening up too soon, of course, could have consequences of its own; namely more sickness and death from the disease itself. And yet I must confess that, at the moment, that scares me less. Even though I am of an age considered particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. And even though one lifelong friend in New York City has already died from that evil virus.
Perhaps my attitude is colored, to some extent, by the fact that I live in one of the Philippines’ 19 provinces that, as of April 22, remained Covid-free. And maybe that’s one of the factors contributing to my overall impression that, just perhaps, our global response could have been – and maybe even still could be – more thoughtful, measured and targeted than seemingly driven by sheer animal panic.
But what do I know, I am neither an economist nor a physician, just one of the millions of ordinary folks destined to live in the dystopian and Kafkaesque world that seems well on its way to creation.
Guess we’ll just have to tighten our masks and stay tuned.
David Haldane is the author of an award-winning memoir called “Nazis & Nudists.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an American journalist, essayist, and broadcaster whose radio work earned a 2018 Golden Mike from the Radio & Television News Association of Southern California. He currently lives in Mindanao with his Filipino wife and their two children. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.
Published originally in Mindanao Gold Star Daily