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Time to Build More Hospitals

The rising Covid-19 infections have overwhelmed our hospitals and exposed the vulnerability of our healthcare system. But it is not too late to regain control of the situation.

 

We should invest in healthcare infrastructure in an unprecedented way. Instead of hiding in our homes from the pandemic, we should start undertaking healthcare-focused measures to defeat Covid-19.

 

Several factors explain why the Philippines has one of the highest numbers of Covid-19 cases in the Asia-Pacific region—which all the more necessary that we focus on expanding our healthcare infrastructure, instead of locking down the economy.

 

The Philippines is a unique nation. More than 10 million Filipinos live or work overseas, remitting over $30 billion annually to their families. Our migrant workers account for about 10 percent of the national population, one of the highest in the world. Obviously, we could not just shut down our airports as thousands of OFWs move in and out of the country every day.

 

By July this year, our population would exceed 110 million, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. A large population congregating in small areas is highly susceptible to a virus outbreak, and we are now seeing this in Metro Manila and nearby provinces.

 

The Asian Development Bank has listed Metro Manila as the most congested among 278 urban areas in Developing Asia. Manila is considered the most densely populated city in the world, with over 40,000 residents per square kilometer. The congestion is even more pronounced in slum communities.

 

The Philippine Statistics Authority has estimated that the population of the National Capital Region or Metro Manila will swell to nearly 14 million by July 2021. Surrounding provinces that were placed under the so-called NCR Plus bubble also have large populations, led by Cavite with 4.3 million. The population of Bulacan is projected to reach 3.7 million by July; Laguna, 3.4 million; and Rizal, 3.27 million. These areas have a combined population of nearly 30 million.

 

It is not surprising that most new Covid-19 were recorded in these areas. While locking down these communities would certainly lead to a slower transmission of the virus, it could never resolve the problem that might burst at the seams one day. No less than the National Economic and Development Authority said the enhanced community quarantine alone does not reduce cases. It simply buys time.

 

A prolonged lockdown of the economy creates a lot of unemployed people, which may only exacerbate the problem and stifle the expected recovery of the economy. This is because the Philippines heavily relies on domestic consumption and investment.

 

It is, thus, time to resort to healthcare-focused measures. The major reason cited by the government for declaring NCR and the provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Cavite, and Laguna under the enhanced community quarantine is the lack of hospital beds amid the influx of newly infected patients. It is heartbreaking to learn that many patients died while waiting for their beds in emergency rooms.

 

This could have been avoided if we have more medical facilities. The government spent more than P200 billion for the social amelioration program last year. It is allocating another P23 billion from the Bayanihan 2 for 22.9 million beneficiaries within the NCR Plus bubble this month. The combined amount of government cash aid could have built more than 223 hospitals with 22,300 beds.

 

Neda has estimated that households in these areas would lose about P2.1 billion a day or nearly P30 billion under the two-week ECQ. The same amount could fund the construction of another 30 hospitals with 3,000 beds.

 

If we build hundreds of new hospitals initially by transforming existing buildings to save time, quickly constructing new ones like China did last year, or deploying mobile hospitals, we could better manage the outbreak without resorting to shackling the economy. A hospital would never be a wasted investment, given the greying population that we have today.

 

Another measure that we should consider is the massive testing of the population in the NCR Plus initially, and in other provinces eventually. Some experts recommend targeted testing, but this might not be enough anymore. The situation in the “NCR Plus” now suggests we need to conduct testing in every barangay because of the widespread community transmission.

 

The US, for example, has conducted more than 400 million Covid-19 tests, exceeding its total population of 332 million. The Philippines has so far conducted only 10.5 million tests or less than 10 percent of the population.

 

Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that we will overcome this situation and restore our economy to lift millions of jobless Filipinos out of poverty.

 

We should not be gripped and controlled by fear. We have to take action through healthcare-focused measures, like building new hospitals, massive testing, and, of course, faster vaccine rollout.