How Government Response and Public Behavior Shaped the Pandemic Curve
How have new social behaviors strained the Philippines’ attempts at recovery?
On April 20, 2021, ABS-CBN data analyst Edson Guido forecast on Twitter that the Philippines would breach the 1-million mark for COVID-19 cases within the week. On April 26, this forecast proved to be accurate, making April one of the Philippines’ worst months in its battle against COVID-19. However, as the country continues to face an alarming surge in cases, vaccine rollout remains slow and insufficient. Mass testing, which is foundational to pandemic response, has yet to happen on a national scale. Businesses are scrambling to keep themselves afloat, and millions are left hanging on the edge of another lockdown that has only added to countrywide instability.
How Did This Happen?
From the start, COVID-19 response in the Philippines has been marked by a lack of urgency. “Uncertain” and “unprecedented” were words often used to characterize the country’s new reality, and the government didn’t hesitate to use them to downplay its mismanagement of the pandemic.
On the ground, frontliners, families, minimum wage employees, and students with no means to work or study from home were left scratching their heads on the next course of action. Soon, panic buying and noncompliance with safety measures occurred. Quarantine classifications were often confusing for both government officials and ordinary citizens, anda failed attempt to define parameters for public behavior. While Malacañang continues to float a rosy narrative, reports from the ground indicate otherwise: an economic recession, culture of impunity, and continuously rising poverty and unemployment, which could go beyond President Duterte’s term.
One year on, the Philippines has exceeded 1 million cases. The public remains weary and restless. While face masks, social distancing, and other quarantine protocols have become common practices, the constant threat of infection has led to the emergence of different social behaviors which have strained the country’s attempts at recovery.
When the government began its vaccination drive, Filipinos felt more optimistic about the end to the pandemic being in sight.
In a media briefing on March 19, World Health Organization (WHO) representative to the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe spoke of the global trend of vaccine optimism. He attributed the surge in cases to loosened quarantine restrictions due to the reopening of the economy, coupled with vaccine optimism.
“We seemed to have relaxed a little, and that little relaxation appears to have driven and created room for increased transmission,” Abeyasinghe said.
But vaccine rollout itself has been unable to match vaccine optimism. As of May 9 , the Philippines has only administered a total of 2,065,235 doses. Out of this number, only 320,586 have been inoculated with a second dose to complete the process of giving individuals the vaccine’s full protection.
Perhaps the most pronounced social behavior has been public distrust in the government. The presence of populist leaders in countries like the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States has led to political polarization and public distrust — an issue made more visible by the pandemic. According to Dr. Mary Racelis, an Ateneo de Manila University professor and social anthropologist, public trust plays a crucial role in the implementation of public policy.
“The trust factor is very significant in how collaborative people are in relation to trying to help control [pandemic response measures] across the board”, Dr. Racelis says. While it is important that we can rely on scientific bodies, the second wave of the pandemic has demanded for intersectional collaboration, clear dialogue, and sensible public policies and actions — all of which cannot be attained because of public distrust.
The deployment of the armed forces and their response to quarantine violators has also further eroded the situation. With social behavior being monitored by the military rather than by healthcare experts, government response has further sparked questions and outrage online, with Filipinos remaining unsure of how it can improve the current public health crisis.
Meanwhile, countries like Taiwan, Australia, South Korea, and Thailand, whose leaders put priority on science-based policies have seen infinitely better figures over the duration of the pandemic. Supported by clear communication and intersectional collaboration, COVID-19 cases in these countries did not balloon the same way as they did in the Philippines, and for them, a return to normalcy has been in sight since late last year.
“That’s very much part of the problem — [the] relation between governance, kind of governance, and human behavior,” says Dr. Racelis.
Because of public distrust in the Philippines, there has been a growing disconnect between the people and the government. It seems that, among many other improvements, what the country needs is a leader who can bridge that gap by implementing sound policies that will rebuild public trust.
In the period between the first and second wave of infections, an “optimism bias” occurred. This refers to the belief that one has a lower chance of experiencing negative events or phenomena compared to others.
“Because people saw the rates going down by August, they didn’t take care anymore. They didn’t wear masks anymore,” said Dr. Racelis. “All those precautions mostly went by the board.”
In a TED Talk in 2012, neuroscientist Tali Sharot explained that optimism bias exists as a mechanism for the mind to protect itself against anxiety and threats. During the course of the pandemic, it has led to underestimating the likelihood of catching COVID-19 which can result in neglect of personal hygiene and other safety standards and health protocols.
“Complacency about this [pandemic] just cannot be. We’ve learned that, because every country is going through a second wave, [or] third wave, and that’s partly because they got complacent after the end of the previous wave” said Dr. Racelis.
What Does This Mean for Us?
Now that we’ve hit such a regrettable COVID-19 milestone, the Philippines has become more shrouded in uncertainty than ever. We have yet to catch up to what other countries have achieved: a return to normalcy.
“We’re now in a situation that’s very new. Every day you don’t know [what’s going to happen] and that can be very damning for people.” said Dr. Racelis.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the fault lies in our social behavior alone.
The problems the Philippines is currently facing may also be viewed as a reflection of Filipinos’ weariness from the ongoing battle with the pandemic. Government policies and the lack of intersectional collaborations have also greatly contributed to the emergence of these different social behaviors. The current situation makes it difficult for millions of Filipinos to tow the line between their lives and the reality of the pandemic. It cannot be ignored that every day, healthcare frontliners continue to risk their lives, employees continue to try to make a living, students continue to pursue their studies, and lower-class Filipinos continue to struggle to make ends meet. In these uncertain circumstances and as a result of poor government response, Filipinos must take on the burdens of frequently readjusting.
However difficult it may be, the most an individual can do is continue to find ways to make the pandemic more bearable, whether by revisiting an old hobby, setting up a small business, or even organizing a community pantry to help others who find themselves in dire straits.
“People are finding new things [to do]. That’s one of the fascinating things about staying home and being stuck with the internet. People have found ways to get out of boredom which turn out to be quite exciting and interesting, and sometimes income-generating, too.” says Dr. Racelis.
While breaching the 1-million mark has led to more issues, many Filipinos are still hopeful it doesn’t end here. There is still a chance for new lessons and inspirations to emerge and take the place of old practices. Social behaviors can still change depending on further developments. With a better understanding of how and why vaccine optimism, public distrust, and optimism bias occur, it is now possible to put in a more conscious effort to help flatten the curve.
Gab Jopillo is currently a third-year AB Communication student at the University of Santo Tomas. When she isn’t busy with academics or extracurricular activities, she enjoys reading, watching old films, or curating playlists on Spotify.