When we last met, we had just fired off a letter to the Department of Trade and Industry, requesting an urgent meeting to discuss measures to mitigate what we believed would be the long-term impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the competitiveness of our supply chains, and ultimately, our businesses. We have scheduled a meeting for next week, and we began gathering information from our members through an online survey.
But then things took a dramatic turn. The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Italy has put its entire country under lockdown. The United States has suspended all travel to and from member countries of the European Union. All mass gatherings – sporting events, music festivals, trade shows, pretty much everything – are either being cancelled, suspended or held behind closed doors.
In the Philippines, the number of cases – long dormant at three – began to shoot up. As I write this, we now have 52 confirmed cases, most of which were only revealed in the past week. Five have died. One can attribute the spike to our newly-acquired capability to test for the virus. One can also say it’s exponential growth, as transmission goes unchecked and more people are exposed – it’s what happened to China and Italy, and it;s what’s happening to the United States.
On Thursday night, the government announced what we both had been anticipating and also hoping not to happen: the whole of Metro Manila is put under “community quarantine”, with an emphasis on “social distancing”. All domestic travel to and from the region is banned; class suspensions are extended; and the private sector encouraged to adopt flexible work arrangement for its employees.
We in supply chain have been somewhat preparing for this: the past few weeks have been spent revisiting business continuity plans and putting new measures in place to ensure both the safety of the workforce and the continuous ability to provide goods and services to its customers. Come to think of it, we’ve been in that mindset for months now: between the ASF virus outbreak, the Taal eruption, and the higher demands of the Christmas season, we’ve had to deal with stronger pressures on our production and distribution capacity and capability.
But COVID-19, of course, is an extraordinary thing: a virus with no known cure (although some estimate a vaccine is roughly 18 months away) that’s affecting the elderly and immunocompromised hardest, and that’s stoked fear and paranoia among the public – just look at the empty shelves in your nearest supermarket. In cases like these we are best reassured by information – not just about the enemy, if you’re to put it one way, but also the measures we must take to ensure that it does not grow bigger and unassailable. The more we know, and the earlier we know it, the earlier we can act, and the smaller the disruption is.
If we’re to be completely frank, sometimes government actions don’t leave us reassured. This is not to take away from the work of those in the public sector, those little acts that add up to something meaningful. But watching the rambly press conference last night announcing community quarantine measures, I had the impression that, in the rush to act, the government hasn’t been fully able to think through the wider impact of its actions. Take the ban on all travel to and from Metro Manila, whether by land, sea or air. Would this ban also include vehicles carrying cargo? Calling it a bad idea would be an understatement, especially considering how the region is served by distribution centers and factories in CALABARZON or the Subic-Clark corridor. That would lead to empty shelves just a few days into the month-long quarantine period. That would lead to a restive population. The fact that different government officials were saying different things in the immediate aftermath of the pronouncement isn’t comforting.
Thankfully, the government has provided more clarity the day after. As I write this column, we know that the restrictions are limited to unnecessary passenger travel; cargo deliveries will be subject to inspection, and those commuting from the provinces to their offices in Manila will just have to present proof of their employment to be let through. (So not much of a lockdown, then.) Ports are not halting cargo traffic, and I assume the same goes with airports. We of course have to acknowledge that these measures are being taken to ensure COVID-19 does not spread further. But, again, if we knew this earlier, we wouldn’t have been left in the dark, fumbling for solutions.
I remember one of my colleagues saying that, in cases like these, we should not panic. And he’s right. These scenarios are why we spend all those days crafting plans, talking to our partners, and ensuring we see the movement of our goods at every point. But in extraordinary times like these, we need assurance, and not the sort that’s made for memorable soundbites. Assurance is knowing that you have our backs. Assurance is knowing that you’ve thought of all the implications before making a big announcement. Assurance is the right information, delivered at the right time, so we can make decisions promptly, rather than we flock to the supermarkets to strip it of every can of Lysol in its inventory.
Supply Chain Immersion: Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we have decided to cancel this year’s Supply Chain Immersion, which was scheduled for May 22-24. Also, upon the advice of our Mindanao chapter, we are postponing Supply Chain Perspective in Davao – originally scheduled for March 17 – to a later date. All other scheduled SCMAP events will push through until further notice. More updates are available on our website, scmap.org.
Henrik Batallones is the marketing and communications executive of SCMAP. A former board director, he is also editor-in-chief of the organization’s official publication, Supply Chain Philippines. More information about SCMAP is available at scmap.org.