To help track down COVID-19 cases in every barangay

The Interagency Task Force for the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) recently approved the use of the Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM)’s Demographic Vulnerabilities Tool (DVT), developed as a “new weapon against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) that can be used in every local government unit of the country.”

According to the lead population-management agency of the government, the DVT is based on the analysis of four important characteristics of every barangay during a pandemic: (1) the number of houses measuring less than 20 square meters in the barangay; (2) the number of individuals living in a house; (3) the number of individuals 60 years of age and older living in houses less than 20 sq. m.; and (4) the number of individuals 60 years of age and older living alone.

“While we learn more every day about COVID-19 and know where it is spreading, we are always one step behind, because it takes two weeks to manifest itself in terms of confirmed cases,” Undersecretary Juan A. Perez III, MD explained to the IATF-EID, which ratified the use of the demographic tool in its 23rd meeting. “If we know where we are vulnerable, we can best defend ourselves and pursue the virus in the communities where it thrives, which is among vulnerable Filipinos living in cramped spaces.”

The POPCOM executive director shared that his strategy is based on an age-old principle of Sun Tzu’s Art of War:” If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

Providing barangay-level information

With the IATF-EID approval, POPCOM will provide all of the 42,044 barangays nationwide on their vulnerabilities based on living spaces and the number of senior citizens living in COVID-19-susceptible conditions.

“This information will lead to a greater understanding by local chief executives of their communities’ vulnerabilities, because of the difficulty to achieve physical distancing,” POPCOM’s executive director said. “They can prioritize barangays for contact tracing using their health and population staff members whenever confirmed cases are discovered. This can trigger targeted testing of close contacts, suspects and probable cases, as well as senior citizens or persons with co-morbidities in their vicinity.”

Perez also confirmed that, within the third week of April, POPCOM will be able to complete its analysis for all barangays in the country. It is coordinating with the Department of Health, Department of the Interior and Local Government as well as the National Economic and Development Authority to obtain the information for transmission to the LGUs for their immediate use.

Physical distancing: Difficult in densely packed barangays with small houses

The POPCOM chief explained that, to effectively achieve physical distancing, most authorities require a minimum standard of 6.0 sq. m. per person. By providing these characteristics derived from the Census of Population and Housing of 2010 and using the latest population projections of 2020 that are both from the Philippine Statistics Authority, local chief executives can prioritize communities with large numbers of houses smaller than 20.0 sq. m. in area and with about four household members living therein, which only provides living space of only 5 sq. m. or less per person.

In the National Capital Region alone, Perez pointed out that 3.785 million, or 27.2% of its 13.867 million population, live in 812,584 housing units under 20.0 sq. m. “With an average number of 4.7 persons in each household, that leaves a living space of only 4.25 sq. m. per person, which makes it nearly impossible to achieve physical distancing,” he pointed out.

Focusing on single-detached houses of less than 20.0 sq. m., excluding condominiums, he further pointed out that the poorest in Metro Manila (2.066 million, or 14.9% of NCR’s population) reside in detached spaces of less than 20.0 sq. m. “In this type of housing, the average number of persons in a household increases to 4.9; therefore, the living space goes down to 4.0 sq. m. per person.”

The undersecretary also revealed that a significant number of senior citizens are residents of houses with living spaces of less than 20.0 sq. m., who are at greater risk of acquiring COVID-19. 84,726 of them live with other household members with an average size of 4.9. Another 51,365 live alone in NCR, apart from any family member. As such, they are isolated and may be unable to move around in an enhanced community quarantine setting.

“These particular senior citizens may need special assistance from local government officials at the barangay or higher levels of governance,” Perez emphasized.