I’m traveling to The Philippines for most of month of March and as I leave behind a troubled homeland – Canada – I thought I would make a few observations about how these two countries have managed the Covid pandemic seeking to find the balance between minimizing the impact of the virus on its citizenry and minimizing the effects of these civic constraints on the social and economic fabric of these two countries.
Let me repeat at the outset that I think politicians in almost every country have faced a Hobbesian choice in struggling with this dilemma (the trade-off between health protection and socio-economic wellbeing) and I don’t particularly fault any political leader in the choices they made at the time, in the face of so much uncertainty and rapidly changing opinion and ‘advice’ from the so-called public health ‘experts’. (I use quotation marks here because the Public Health bureaucrats were wholly unprepared for this virus invasion (despite the SARS-1 outbreak of 2002), did not understand the true nature of the virus (for which they can’t be fully faulted), offered often conflicting advice (e.g., to mask or not to mask), had only one priority goal, to suppress the transmission of the virus and to preserve hospital capacity for acute care cases (because our hospital system was seriously under-capacity prior to the pandemic), and had little to no consideration for collateral social and economic damage (e.g., small businesses, school experience, mental health). Moreover, as public servants, these bureaucrats appear to have no accountability for their lack of preparedness and often bad advice to political leaders.) The question is, what are the long-term implications of these choices, and the choices our political leaders will continue to make in the face of continued uncertainty, and perhaps post factum justification, or even cover-up?
I lived in The Philippines for 7 months in 2019/20 and while I was there I wrote two weekly blog posts – one, Travels With Myself, was mostly about my journey of transition through grief and loss to some sort of resolution, but the other, The Pilipiñas Packet, was an account of my experience in The Philippines of Filipino culture and society. I wrote a book based on the first blog but a number of my readers thought the second blog may have been even more worthy of publishing, as a travelogue more than a personal monologue.
In this post I want to make some observations of almost two years of restriction of normal movement in Canada, and compare that with what the authorities in The Philippines did, and then comment on the situation I leave in Canada as of February 28. I will be in Pilipiñas as of March 4 and in my mid-March post I want to observe more fully on what I see on the ground in the Philippines. I return to Canada (accompanied by ‘Carmen Beauty’!) on March 23 and will see where things stand in Canada and in comparison with The Philippines in my last post on this theme, March 30. [Amazingly, the conflict in Ukraine the last week has almost completely overshadowed the covid conflict in Canada the week before. What’s that they say about a week in politics…]
The Philippines are used to calamities and so have a whole system in place for locking down society in the face of typhoons, earthquakes, volcanos and even swine flu! They call in the police, (both local and national), barangay officials and the army, at the first call of trouble (looting (evacuation is common because of infrastructure damage due to earthquakes and typhoons), pathogen transmission (e.g., swine flu), insurrection (Al Qaeda in Mindanao, Communists in Palawan, or the NPA (National People’s Army) in the mountains of Central Luzon); they can throw up roadblocks at the drop of a hat, make arrests without charge with the sign of a pen by the President, or if more local, by the Provincial Governor, impose curfews; everyone has an identity card and can be required to show it. The Philippines has so many emergencies every year that the don’t need an Emergency Measures Act to implement special measures to secure the country or region in the face of a calamity. Moreover the country is so used to these responses to these frequent emergencies they experience it as normal. That doesn’t mean they accept constraints on their liberty with a bored shrug but they have long experience of the practicality of it all. So when President Duterte took his cue from the WHO about the world-wide Covid-19 pandemic, he, in concert with the 24 Provincial Governors, implemented a series of restrictions on the Regions of the Philippines to try to contain the spread of the virus: incoming International flights were shut down immediately in Manila, Cebu and Davao; all seaports were closed, except to local fishermen; travel to and from (ferries) the main island of Luzon was stopped but interprovincial travel was otherwise still permitted as most of the infection rates were predominantly in high density urban areas, primarily the 16 cities comprising metro Manila; lockdowns were progressively more severe in the provinces extending from Manila (curfews in the principal cities of Manila, ordinary lockdowns in the cities in surrounding provinces (e.g., Trece Martires, Cavite) except for essential services (grocery stores (and small sari-sari tindahans), pharmacies and banks (but not liquor stores!)); in the more densely populated provinces of Luzon (such as Carmen’s province of Cavite which is just south west of Manila) school-age children were confined to their houses, and seniors (over 60) were not allowed to leave their local Baranguays and neighbourhoods. These restrictions, as in Canada, varied with the ebb and flow of the virus variants and the rate of infection over the last two years of the pandemic. But the restrictions were always more severe than in Canada, at least in the urban centres around Manila. One of the most draconian measures, and contradictory, was controls on international travel to and from Pilipiñas for foreigners and even Filipino nationals. Canada had severe restrictions throughout the pandemic but most Canadians could fly in and out of Canada – even non-essential travel could be managed. OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) could come in and out of Philippines at any time (while observing quarantine protocols); family members on essential travel were also permitted but anyone traveling on a only a tourist visa were not allowed in or out. That meant that I as a foreign tourist, not married to Carmen, could not enter The Philippines, nor could Carmen leave the country.
In many ways these severe restrictions in The Philippines worked. There is no telling how many Filipinos actually became infected with the virus because the Philippines was not able to do the volume of testing necessary to know that fact. The only factor that is relevant though is the number of deaths due to the Covid-19 virus. And the Philippines were three times as effective as Canada despite the much higher population density in the main urban areas: # of deaths in Canada since the inception: 36,536; # of deaths in Philippines, 56,401 (Canada’s death rate has flattened somewhat because its vaccination rate is now much higher than the Philippines’ vaccination rate), but the population of The Philippines is three times that of Canada.
With that background, the point of this blog post (with more to follow in the next two posts) is to look at the relative responses by the people to the pandemic protocols in the two countries.
Canada at first was highly alarmed generally to the presumed threat of the virus and in response rallied in support of whatever measures our harried political leaders and their advisors thought best (‘We’re all in this together!’). People in the Philippines were also alarmed at the scale of the crisis but responded almost axiomatically to yet one more calamity in their long history of national calamities. Over time though the Canadian population (in many ways mirroring the American experience) began to divide into two camps – those who accepted the behaviour modifications required by the protocols for the collective security of the population, and those who didn’t, or perhaps, more accurately, accepted these restrictions reluctantly. As the pandemic persisted and the rules kept changing, the populous became more and more fractured along partisan lines, and at all levels in Canadian society – not just amongst our political leaders but also in the chattering classes, the mainstream media, the variety of social media, and to down to cleaving family and friends.
I think the main casuality in Canada as a result of this pandemic period has been the loss of civic trust and confidence in our social institutions, and worse, the loss of tolerance and even civility in Canadian society. This divide widened during the [unnecessary] federal election in 2021 September when Justin Trudeau decided to make vaccination a wedge issue, and reached a peak with the consortium of ordinary Canadians said, enough, and drove their trucks from all over Canada to converge on Ottawa and send a message to the federal government. This movement gained wide support across many segments of Canadian society at first but this support began to erode back to previous polar positions because people became increasingly concerned about apparent disrespect of the rule of law and the truckers became entrenched in their position with no sense of the end-game. The controversial activation of the Emergency Measures Act gave police forces the political direction to act against the demonstrators and the ‘insurrection’ died, not with a cry but with a whimper. The long-term consequences on Canadian society will take some time to being fully realized but they may be significant and be lasting.
What has been the response to covid-19 protocols on Philippine society is something I hope to uncover during my visit to The Philippines over the next few weeks, and see if there may be similar disruption to social cohesion as there appears to be in Canada. Stay tuned.
Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata Ontario
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