Balance between health and economy.

In sum, that is the elusive formula that could be key to winning the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the country’s new chief economist.

Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick T. Chua said science would play a key role in a post-quarantine scenario.

Chua’s position may be in contrast to his predecessor, economist Ernesto M. Pernia, who had pushed for lifting the lockdown for the private sector to restart the economy. The private sector and households account for three-fourths of the economy.

In an interview with government-run PTV-4 on Wednesday (April 22), Chua summed up his and the government’s dilemma–“What we know is we don’t know what would happen.”

Speaking mostly in Filipino, the acting head of the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) said the recommendation of Neda was to “decide based only on scientific evidence.”

He said officials discussed options with scientists, epidemiologists and data analysts to know the effect of proposals to modify or relax the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).

“For example, there are those who say that if we suddenly open up, no more ECQ, then the virus would return and up to millions would be infected,” he said in Filipino.

“We can’t afford that and many would die,” he said.

“There are also those who say that if we modify, we let some sectors operate, there are those who say we should limit this to priority sectors,” he said. “The elderly and children should not be outside.”

He added that another proposal was to decide based on “geographic risk of infection.” This would mean places with no infection would be allowed to reopen.

“Those are the decision parameters that we are using,” said Chua.

“But the source of our decision will only be based on the scientific evidence,” he said.

He added that the government can’t listen to just the business sector which wants to reopen the economy to give jobs to people.

“That is right and we should be concerned and should care for our workers,” he said.

“But on the other hand, we should also know the effects of each decision on others who may fall ill, those who might die and whether more would die,” Chua said.

“That should be balanced and that’s what we’re trying to do now so the final decision would be one that was well-studied and based on data,” he said.

At a press conference via the teleconferencing app Zoom late Tuesday (April 21), Chua said immediately opening up businesses without planning and safeguards “comes at a very high risk of the virus spreading and actually making things worse.”

He said while the effect of immediate reopening would be an increase in gross domestic product, it could “then slump and not recover for a long time.”

The Duterte administration’s economic team expects GDP this year to post flat or zero growth at best or contract by up to 1 percent at worst.

Chua said there are also suggestions to “give it a bit more time because we’re not ready.”

He said if reopening was delayed for more time the result could be “growth that will be more stable.”

“These are the trade-offs that we hear and we are assessing,” Chua said.

“Until we have more solid evidence from the models, from the modelers in the scientific community, we cannot make that decision,” Chua said.

Chua likened this difficult balancing act to taking antibiotics but stopping midway when the person already felt better but only for the bacteria to return, stronger.

Another analogy he used was of a patient advised by a doctor to stay in hospital for a month but stayed only for 15 days because he felt better early only to become sick again which required longer confinement.

“These analogies are guiding us in our decision-making process to make sure that when we do decide, it is really looking after the best interest of the people,” Chua said.

Citing World Bank estimates, Chua said at least 100,000 lives had been saved through ECQ.

Chua said Neda, which leads post-pandemic planning, would release by end of April results of surveys made with the Department of Finance with the aim of having an idea of what the “new normal” would look like.

Chua said another survey would be done on the sentiments and concerns of big business.

The surveys form part of the process to craft economic recovery plans to bring back jobs and assure growth.

Edited by TSB


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