Social distancing as safety measure is a 'privilege', advocacy group says

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 11) — The Department of Health has repeatedly advised the public to avoid crowded places among other measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease but questions arise on whether this is reasonable to ask of our third-world country.

Dr. Joshua San Pedro from the Coalition of People's Right to Health said the poor especially seem vulnerable to the spread of the virus given their need to use public facilities such as mass transportation, which is often overloaded with passengers.

"We really have to look at the bigger context that inequality is existing," San Pedro told CNN Philippines' special presentation on the coronavirus outbreak.

He also raised that there is an apparent lack of access to healthy resources or even clean water for poor families.

"How can you think about handwashing when you don't have running water? How are you able to think about eating properly when nutritious food is very expensive and junk food is really cheaper? So with regards to social distancing and self-quarantine, sometimes it's a privilege for individuals," said San Pedro.

However, the Department of Transportation maintained that the public can be safe with the proper measures in place. DOTr Undersecretary Reinier Yebra said the Philippines' modes of transport such as buses and trains are no different than those in first-world nations.

"People of all walks of life use this transportation system...and you cannot observe the one-meter social distancing rule without such difficulty, even in the US, dikitan talaga [they are really crammed together]," argued Yebra.

This is why the government urges the public to practice safety habits before using shared resources, he added.

World Health Organization Country Representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe said flexible work hours can also help ease human congestion during commuting.

A few senators have already urged employers to provide work-from-home arrangements to protect workers from the outbreak.

President Rodrigo Duterte also ordered to suspend classes in Metro Manila, where the confirmed cases are concentrated from March 9 to March 14.

On the matter of resources, Interior Department Spokesperson Jonathan Malaya said the problem of malnutrition and access can be remedied through the Universal Healthcare Law.

The law which was signed last year, ensures that all Filipinos are covered by the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation and that each will be assigned to primary healthcare providers with free services.

As for the COVID-19 tests, the DOH said testing for the infection is free and medical costs will be covered by the state health insurer.

The problem remains on whether people from either middle or upper classes, are actually willing to be tested to confirm if they have the infection, San Pedro said. He added that some families would likely use their money for only buying basic goods than visiting a private hospital for medical checks.

"Hopefully we don't reach a situation in which the reason why we're not detecting cases is because these people are not seeking medical attention," said San Pedro.

Duterte ordered a state of public health emergency following a confirmed local transmission of COVID-19. There are at least 49 people who have the infection.