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Lives vs jobs: An unnecessary choice

Lives vs jobs: An unnecessary choice

With the decision made in the very early morning of Aug. 18 to revert to general community quarantine (GCQ) in Metro Manila, polarizing views on whether it’s the health of the citizen or the health of the economy that should be prioritized may well emerge again. Presented as a binary choice, and wrapped in understandable emotion, it presents a conundrum of considerable significance to policymakers. But need it be so? Can more rigorous analysis of at least the key numbers underlining an issue of such importance help chart a new pathway?


This was the challenge taken up by the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Pintig Lab in partnership with the Ateneo de Manila University Department of Economics’ FASSSTER socioeconomic modeling working group. We adopted a multivariate approach, combining health data with a socioeconomic analysis of estimated costs in terms of lives, livelihoods, and revenues. These data were then used to project the socioeconomic impacts on Metro Manila until Aug. 31, 2020, and health impacts until Oct. 31, 2020.


The numbers demonstrate that relying on GCQ or modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) does not offer a sustainable pathway forward. Rather, the most critical measure needed to reduce both the health and economic toll of COVID-19 lies in expanding capabilities to test, trace, and isolate COVID-19-infected individuals.


The Philippines’ current health service capacity stands at 19 percent, meaning that our ability to test, trace, and isolate positive cases is estimated to be one in five cases, and the time taken to detect and isolate cases is at an average of five days. Under this capacity, and with an MECQ applied over a month, we might be able to reduce COVID-19 cases by around 28,722 persons by the end of August, but it would also have a scarring effect on the economy, with an additional 461,000 workers projected to be displaced. These labor losses, in turn, would cost the NCR economy approximately P10.7 billion per day. With an economy already contracting by 16.6 percent year on year in the second quarter, these are numbers we cannot afford. However, we equally do not need to put more lives at risk.

A more sustainable pathway would be to increase the health service capacity to 33 percent, meaning that two in three cases are detected and isolated within three days or less. Providing that there was also 50-percent public compliance with wearing face masks and face shields, then GCQ would be the least costly lockdown type. Metro Manila would see only an increase in 661 cases between Aug. 31 and Oct. 31, as opposed to 51,480 with the capacity remaining at just 19 percent. From an economic perspective, approximately P32.6 billion would be saved by the end of August. One could expect this number to improve as the virus transmission rate is arrested and the economy is allowed to open up further.


The modeling we have undertaken and the option we have suggested can in no way compensate for the immense pain and physical and emotional exhaustion felt by individuals and families as they confront the real tragedies of losing lives and losing jobs. We know very well that there is a risk of appearing callous in trying to simplify complex problems to models and curves. But robust data analysis can help us make difficult choices and help us avoid making unnecessary binary decisions about whether to drive the economy into the ground while saving thousands of lives, or revive the economy while sacrificing thousands of lives.


There need not be an either-or trade-off. The numbers show that there is a possible middle way.

(The modeling above are figures from Aug. 19, 2020, that will be regularly updated. A monthly policy note by the Pintig Lab and FASSSTER shall be provided to the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases to help inform the impact of policy choices. The next findings will be due in the last week of September and published on the UNDP Philippines website.)---------------Titon Mitra is the resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Philippines.