The anatomy of a bad idea

Don’t get me wrong, I reckon Duterte is one of the best presidents the Philippines has ever had.  He’s not particularly corrupt, and whatever he does, he does for his people.  Crime rates are way down, everywhere.  Until Covid, business was booming.  Bureaucrats were behaving themselves, often too terrified to even demand bribes.  And let’s not forget that it was Duterte’s will that helped the government win back control over Marawi.

The trouble with benevolent dictators is, they start to think they know everything.  Power corrupts in the sense that it makes them overconfident, and unwilling to listen to sound advice or take criticism.

So you get what we had here this week:

President Rodrigo Duterte said he does not favor the opening of school classes until there is an available vaccine against the coronavirus disease.  (. . .)

[Translation: “I will not allow the opening of classes where the kids will be beside each other. No one will go to school unless I am sure they are really safe. There has to be a vaccine first.”]

[Translation: “No more classes, only play time, unless I’m sure that they are really safe.”]

Keep in mind that many families are very poor and lack internet access.  Even if they have it, connections tend to be slow and unreliable.  There is not a good alternative to physical lessons that will be available in the near future.

There are already big problems with the Philippines education system that seem eternally impervious to reform.  For example, many students finish their education at the end of middle school, when they are 16.  They are not allowed to take on formal employment until they are 18.  This means a huge number of 16 and 17 year olds are left with idle hands, and become too lazy and unaccustomed to consistently getting up and being on time to be very good employees once they are of age.

The no-school-until-vaccine policy is similarly short-sighted.  Or rather, deliberately blind to the facts.

The fastest we have ever developed a vaccine was four years, for mumps.

As for coronaviruses, we’ve never made vaccine for one of them before.

Let’s say, in an absolute best-case scenario, we develop an effective vaccine against Covid-19 in two years.  It’s probably impossible, but let’s imagine.

No school for two years, or perhaps longer, as it will take time to mass produce and distribute the vaccine.

One thing governments and the public are lacking in the present pandemic is the ability to comprehend trade-offs.  Theoretically, keeping schools closed might limit infections.  But going without education for two years would be devastating for a country that lacks enough professionals and skilled labour already.

A lot of online comments support the move.  “Thank you for keeping our children safe, Mr. President!”  This attitude flies in the face of evidence.  The risk of a healthy, normal child dying of Covid is virtually nil.  The only way the policy might help would be by restricting the spread of the disease in general, which would keep it away from the elderly and vulnerable.

So far, less than a thousand Filipinos have died of Corona, in a population of 110 million.  That’s less than 0.00001% of the population.

Last year, a dengue fever outbreak killed more than a thousand people, many of them children.

Schools did not close.  In fact, not much happened at all.  I saw no mass spraying campaign, nor mosquito nets handed out, nor insect repellent required at school.  There were a few posters up and that was it.

Tuberculosis killed around 20,000 in 2017.  Diabetes, 30,000.  Pneumonia, 60,000.  Heart disease and cancer were by far the biggest killers, but sugar, spam, and overused palm oil are as ubiquitous as ever.

This problem of perspective is not unique to the Philippines.  We’ve lost our collective mind.  Why does this one virus so terrify us, when we’ve shrugged off much greater threats in the past?

Not a single country locked down for SARS, MERS, bird flu, Hong Kong flu, or the Asian flu.  In Africa, there were only local and short-term lockdowns during Ebola outbreaks.

During the worst modern pandemic, the Spanish Flu, lockdowns were either not used or were far less extensive and disruptive than those employed now for a much less dangerous pathogen.  Today, that event barely rates a footnote in modern history textbooks.

Look at the West.  We cower from Covid, even while we eat junk food, fail to get enough exercise, don’t eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables, work too hard, suffer too much stress, drink too much, take too many pharmaceuticals, fail to get enough sleep, and so on.

Look at India.  The government’s sudden lockdown threw migrant workers into confusion and transport hubs into Biblical chaos.  Yet in 2015, 1.2 million children died from malnutrition and preventable diseases.  Did the government panic about that?  They barely batted an eyelid.

While we’re at it, look at the Asian Tigers.  No or minimal lockdown, early control of international travel, moderate restrictions here and there, masks, contact tracing, and the disease is largely under control.

This was not a nothing-burger.  Nor was it an apocalypse-burger.  It was a virus like many we’ve encountered and dealt with previously, but this time we went mad.

Early on, when much was unknown, perhaps an overreaction was understandable.  But now that we’ve got the jump on this thing, with clear examples of how to manage it well, there is no excuse for any more illogical, damaging policies.

We must come to our senses.


  1. luisman · May 27, 2020

    I think it largely stems from a few plunders Trump did. A lot of 3rd world countries just copy haphazardly US guidelines, the Philippines seems to always copy the worst of them. Trump let Fauci and Brix convince him of lockdowns as an emergency measure. And he babbeled about a vaccine available as soon as October or so. He also quacked about HCQ (which actually works, preventative and in the early stages).

    My local doc told me a few days ago, that if I fall sick and get to the quarantine centers, they would give me HCQ for free (so why would I want to buy it now). Now they decided, upon WHO recommendations, that HCQ shall not be used anymore. That’s why I wanted to buy it, because you cannot trust any government or international organisation. Corrupt and clueless describes the lot of them.

    Everything is topsy turvy now.
    Lockdowns don’t really work, they increase the death rate from all other diseases.
    The development of a vaccine may be done in a few months, but testing for safety takes many years.
    HCQ works, but just not for the very seriously ill, who are at the brink of death anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. luisman · May 27, 2020

    Reblogged this on Nicht-Linke Blogs.


  3. dickycone · May 27, 2020

    I had a brilliant and insightful comment on this that WordPress keeps telling me I’ve already posted, although I don’t see it here. Your loss, I suppose.

    tl;dr, you’re right and the reaction to the virus has been stupid and incomprehensible almost everywhere in the world, and my doctor agrees with you. As to why, I think Bill Gates is behind it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. PrinzEugen · May 28, 2020

    I actually agree with Duterte here, and I am glad that there are sane right-wing leaders left (Trump and especially Bolsonaro both screwed up big time with their denialism). In my opinion, nothing these children and teenagers learn at school is important enough to risk having a large proportion of the workforce get sick all at once. And we still don’t know the proportion of sick people that are left with permanent health problems after the infection (reduced lung capacity, neurological disorders, circulatory diseases, etc.). Even if a lot people with comorbidities end up dying, the healthcare burden might still end up to be the same, or possibly even worse.

    As for a vaccine, we’ll have one ready by early next year, possibly sooner. Trust me, I read /r/covid19 on Reddit every day.


    • Nikolai Vladivostok · May 29, 2020

      Schools have remained open in Taiwan, where there have been 7 deaths. Other, less disruptive measures are more effective.

      Liked by 1 person

      • PrinzEugen · May 29, 2020

        Taiwan is the model that all the world should have followed from the very start (early January). Unfortunately, the world rather listened to that Ethiopian warlord you previously wrote about. Taiwan and South Korea also have world-class testing and contact tracing, as well as apps that tell you if you’ve come into contact with someone infected, and they religiously wear face masks over there. The Philippines are a lot poorer and might not be able to do all of that, but they should at least try to look at Thailand’s approach.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Nikolai Vladivostok · May 30, 2020

          I was thinking about that yesterday. Contract tracing is low-tech – all you need is call centres and some training. The Philippines has call centres everywhere. The main expense is labour, and here that is cheap. I hope they learn from the experience, like Taiwan and SK learned from SARS.


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