NEDA backs 'widespread' testing to contain COVID-19 spread with thousands of jobs at stake

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 24) — The National Economic and Development Authority has called for "widespread" coronavirus testing, as it flagged that at least 116,000 jobs are at stake as the disease continues to spread.

A March 19 assessment released by the agency on Tuesday showed mounting losses borne by the Philippine economy due to the COVID-19 outbreak, ranging from at least ₱428.7 billion to ₱1.36 trillion.

NEDA outlined a three-level response to address the impact of the pandemic, starting with clinical and medical response.

"The key to a successful medical response is widespread testing," the agency said, pointing out that health authorities also relied on early diagnosis to control the 2019 dengue epidemic.

"A patient who is diagnosed earlier could be given care to prevent secondary infections. Moreover, early diagnosis will lead to early initiation of quarantine procedures and, therefore, limit or prevent the spread of the virus," the state economists said.

READ: Plea for mass testing receives online support

Calls for mass testing have gained ground on social media, especially after senators and some high-ranking officials demanded to be prioritized for testing despite the limited number of kits and the long line of sick patients waiting to be processed in hospitals. The hashtag #NoToVIPTesting became a trending topic on Twitter during the weekend.

READ: Duque: Some 'VIPs' directly requested for COVID-19 testing

However, health officials have rejected the idea of conducting mass testing now, admitting that local laboratories are "challenged" by limited capacity.

The NEDA study pointed out that early diagnosis of COVID-19 patients would incur costs which could "overburden" the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation, while supply of test kits could be a problem. However, it suggested that authorities can secure additional funding elsewhere, or solicit donations as well as financial support.

Health monitoring and referral systems must be set up alongside enough research personnel to study the disease, while health workers should be kept safe and provided with shelter and transport as they cure patients.

This should be accompanied by public health measures, such as travel bans, proper hygiene, ban on mass gatherings and close contact, as well as school and work suspensions.

The bulk of the losses due to COVID-19 would be incurred during the month-long quarantine in Luzon — the country's main financial engine — anywhere from ₱298 billion to ₱1.09 trillion, as most businesses are shut down as the government scrambles to contain the disease.

NEDA also pointed out foregone opportunities in terms of consumer spending, remittances, exports, and tourism. Together with the enhanced community quarantine, as many as 1.8 million Filipinos could be out of jobs if the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak stretches until June. The result: economic growth could slip to 4.3 percent or even slower, well below the original 6.5-7.5 percent goal for 2020.

The Asian Development Bank said early March that 252,000 jobs are at risk as tourism is halved due to the outbreak, but that was before the Luzon shutdown was implemented.

Travel restrictions for both foreign and domestic tourists alone could displace as much as 56,600 workers, NEDA said.

"Once the enhanced community quarantine is lifted, there may still be reduced economic activity as the public becomes hesitant to engage. The best way to address this problem is to assure the public of the adequacy of our improved health systems," NEDA said.

The government has restricted movement and business operations in the entire Luzon, only allowing workers in critical industries like healthcare, food preparation, banks, groceries, and media to report to work while the rest were told to stay at home to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus disease of COVID-19. Malls and offices have been shut, with the state appealing for work-from-home arrangements from March 17 until April 13.

International debt watcher S&P Global Ratings said a recession across Asia-Pacific is guaranteed, as it slashed the growth forecast for the Philippines to 4.2 percent. Meanwhile, Fitch Solutions said growth could slip to 4 percent.