Several Palawan towns including Brooke’s Point, Aborlan, Narra and Linapacan this week issued similar policies restricting access to Puerto Princesa City as a response to the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases reported in the capital.

The border restrictions included curtailing free travel except for essential purposes and only for the so-called allowed persons outside residence (APOR). The measure was effectively a throwback to the early period of the pandemic in 2020 when the entire country was placed under a total lockdown or enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).

The trigger to these rigid measure was the incidence of community transmission in the city over the last two weeks that saw its numbers rise from under 10 active cases that are all asymptomatic to over 30. Most of the cases have been indexed to the 2nd reported COVID-19 death in Palawan earlier.

As the entire world grappled with the pandemic throughout most of 2020, it had learned to balance total lockdowns with health safety measures such as wearing masks, cleaning hands and physical distancing. Even before the vaccines became a potential game changer, such balancing measures have shown to work such that the IATF devised a graded community quarantine classification system to allow for downgrading of the lockdown restrictions.

With the categorization of the entire Palawan as a “low risk” area, it was one of the first provinces to be downgraded from the most strict quarantine level to “moderate general community quarantine” or MGCQ. This was at a time when the entire nation was even reeling from a constant rise in the number of COVID-19 cases and medical response mechanisms including rapid testing was a much bigger challenge.

Since then, the IATF has long issued a policy allowing local governments in MGCQ areas to adopt localized lockdowns as they deem necessary. Under current protocols, free travel with MGCQ areas are allowed.

The towns’ reaction to clamp down on their borders could be regarded as an exercise of discretion. But whether this decision on the part of the LGUs concerned was even necessary remains a question. There certainly was limited deliberation or coordination with the city authorities if any. On the part of the provincial government, all it did was to issue an executive order reminding towns to be aware and cautious of the cases unfolding in the city.

At best, their decision may be regarded as “erring on the side of caution”.  This, however, goes against the earlier push of the entire province to open up the local economy and begin the process of economic recovery.

There are tradeoffs to a total lockdown, one of which is the curtailment of movement that impacts on the natural flow of economic activity. The country’s experience having had one of the longest lockdowns in the world in its response to the pandemic is a lot of lessons to draw from. Reacting kneejerk to 34 cases in the city as a basis to a lockdown may be unnecessary, considering there are balancing measures that are also proper response actions.

Brooke’s Point has reportedly withdrawn its restriction and there are talks within the provincial government to ask other towns to walk back their executive orders. What is perhaps needed is to encourage closer coordination and consultation between health authorities and determine policy options that are based more on science rather than pure political discretion.

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