EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - March 26, 2020 - 12:00am

Mornings now are starkly different.  From where I am, it is eerily quiet without the honking of the yellow school bus which comes everyday to fetch the little girl next door, or the noisy runners that occasionally train in our neighborhood. I only hear the roosters crowing louder than usual, like Chicken Little running about town.

I’ve changed my morning habits, too. Instead of lingering in bed for a few minutes, I get up right away and immediately do a pulse check of sorts — I check my throat whether it’s sore or not; feel my body for an unusual rise in temperature; or my nose if I have colds. A single cough or sneeze frightens me, when in fact in our pre-coronavirus or COVID-19 life, sleep-deprived journalists like me aren’t strangers to the occasional fatigue.

I worry, and yet here I am, not even on the frontlines.  I can’t imagine how it is to be a health worker especially in these trying times.

We need more medical facilities

The situation worsens everyday.

Some of the biggest hospitals in Metro Manila have pressed the emergency button. They have issued warnings that they can no longer accommodate patients with COVID-19 because they have exceeded their maximum capacity.

Some of their doctors and health workers have fallen ill because of the virus. It does not help that some patients lie to their doctors about their travel histories or possible exposure. This is very damaging. Bad data or the wrong information can literally kill people these days. Some COVID patients can be super spreaders without the symptoms. They should be honest about their travel history and possible exposure.

Because of all these problems, our health system – which is so frail to begin with – is now so ill and at risk of collapsing anytime now. It’s only a matter of time before the whole country suffers severe damage because of the virus.

We need additional medical facilities now. We needed them yesterday.  Our government should have done this when COVID-19 was still just on our doorstep.  Wuhan did it for COVID-19, Nigeria did it for Ebola.  Other countries have been doing it now.

The private sector can step in and create their own makeshift medical facilities. I hear that one conglomerate is studying the possibility of doing this.

I also heard that the Consunji Group is helping the Philippine General Hospital convert its facility into a COVID-focused hospital.

The government can also make an inventory of white elephants that it can use as testing centers or makeshift quarantine facilities.

The controversial P8.1 billion Aquino-era Barangay Health Station project can easily be utilized. These buildings are complete and ready for use, but are now just white elephants scattered all over the country. The multibillion project has been at the center of legislative inquiries, no thanks to dirty politics between the Yellows and the current administration.

Out of the roughly 5,000 stations supposed to be built, there are already 570 existing BHS units, of which 465 are in regions where there are confirmed COVID-19 cases.

The health stations can easily help local governments provide initial response to patients under monitoring or investigation, or those with mild symptoms.  It can function as testing centers or it can be used to house persons under monitoring or investigation while waiting for their test results.

In a letter to President Duterte on March 23, the contractor of the BHS project, J. Bros Construction Corp, offered a solution.

“It is without a doubt that these BHS units are the perfect COVID-19 Response Centers. On Feb. 11 we wrote to the DOH, offering the turn-over of the BHS to the department so that they could use it for the upcoming fight against the coronavirus.

“In the same letter, we explained that the amount of P1,043,500,478.85 as determined by the Arbitral Tribunal in the Corrected Final Award dated Oct. 22, 2019 could be satisfied from the Irrevocable Domestic Documentary Letter of Credit (LC) issued in favor of the contractor with the amount P3,509,566,388.53.

“Once the award is released, the remaining P2,466,065,909.68 will be readily available to augment much needed funding to fight this pandemic,” the contractor said.

It said that with the additional powers given by Congress, President Duterte may realign funds for the government’s response to fight the virus.

Fort Magsaysay

Another facility that may be used is the mega drug rehabilitation center in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija. The facility, donated by a Chinese billionaire in 2016, sits on a 75,000-hectare land inside the military reservation.

Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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