Numbers don’t lie
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - August 7, 2020 - 12:00am

“We are waging a losing battle against COVID-19,” jointly wrote 80 medical workers associations representing 80,000 doctors and a million nurses, as they pleaded for the government to re-impose a two week lockdown to prevent the healthcare system from collapsing amid soaring infections. The plea comes as hospital ICUs and emergency rooms, particularly in NCR, are being overrun, compounded by already overworked hospital personnel becoming sick in droves. On that day, the Philippines recorded a new high of 4,963 infections. And as if to prove the point, new cases have been surging steadily, that three days later it stood at 6,352, the country’s largest single-day increase so far, taking the confirmed coronavirus cases to 112,593.

The death toll jumped by 20 to 2,115, or double what it was at the end of July. This is the second highest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Southeast Asia, behind Indonesia which we might soon surpass.

No matter how you sugarcoat it, the indisputable fact is that despite the longest and strictest lockdown imposed in any country in the region, the numbers show we have not been successful in managing the pandemic. Public health experts said poor detection, isolation, and contact tracing have failed to contain the disease, and so when restrictions were eased in June, allowing freer movement of people and the reopening of some businesses, infections jumped fivefold, with deaths more than doubling.

What needs to happen

The government has responded halfway by instituting a two week modified ECQ as it tries to balance saving lives and the country’s economic health. In all of the previous quarantines, the government has not achieved any measurable gain. I don’t see how the outcome can be different this time unless it also “recalibrates its strategies” as our medical workers are asking.

They ask that health professionals participate in developing the public health responses and in communicating it to the public. Except for the DOH – whose competence and credibility also has been questioned – there is no other medical professional in the IATF to give balance and private sector insight. It is implemented by current or retired military officers who are doing what is expected of them – enforcement. However, the focus on enforcement undermines the social contract that government and the governed take joint ownership of the challenge, that they have their respective responsibilities and are in this together. What we get is frequent public scolding by our leadership. It is as if we brought this upon ourselves and are wholly responsible for its spread. The government has been asking people – including our frontliners – to take heavy sacrifices, but has not been perceived as doing its part in protecting the public such as in shoring up the health system, or providing meaningful social amelioration. The frustration adds up when we see our ASEAN neighbors faring well without even resorting to lengthy lockdowns (read last week’s column).

One major area the public relies on in government is providing timely and accurate metrics, without which public health measures, including testing, contact tracing, surveillance, and effective public health communication will be less potent even if lockdowns are imposed. How can you get ahead of the disease – including deciding when to ease quarantine – if you have no clear idea of what it is doing? For example, UP researchers studying the outbreak’s numbers said the trend showed an increase of 50 percent of fresh cases reported per day from one quarantine period to the next.  Why then were we not able to anticipate the extent of the surge that would inevitably follow relaxation of quarantine measures?

In terms of addressing the need to reinforce our medical professionals who are at the breaking point, a step in the right direction is the announcement by the President to hire 10,000 medical professionals to strengthen the current workforce and providing additional benefits for health care workers treating COVID-19 patients. Where do you find these professionals? How do you calibrate the right benefits that our health care workers deserve? Let’s hope this does not turn out to be empty promises again. Government should have also taken the opportunity during this period to increase the resources to deal with the resurgence such as in building additional hospital capacity, particularly for emergency rooms and ICUs.

The government has pinned its hope that a COVID-19 vaccine will soon be available – from China – as early as December. I have no doubt that China has the capability to develop one. But it will take time to ensure it is safe and effective. Unfortunately, Chinese biotech companies’ record on vaccines in the past has been spotty and sometimes fraudulent, leading to long-term damage or even death. We should be careful in relying on one source – especially one with a political price tag attached to it – and listen to expert opinions before committing ourselves to a particular source. Even then, most experts believe it will take up to at least the middle of 2021 before deployment is possible.

We have lived on 14 day increments of varying degrees of quarantine, hoping the government would get it right. It has been 180 days and the number of infections and death keep rising. We cannot wish away the pandemic, as much as our politicians try; it will persist until the government and the public can muster the resolve and the resources to contain it together.

Our medical workers who are in the trenches have expressed legitimate concerns. To take this as bellyaching or personal criticism rather than a call to action politicizes the issue and  betrays a lack of empathy, and reinforces the perception that accountability is one-sided.

For me, it is not just statistics, the reality of how serious this is sunk in when my immediate family has been hit by COVID-19. It was the frontliners who provided us a felicitous outcome. It speaks volumes of the quality of their dedication and professionalism. They have my gratitude and abiding support.

Mr. President, effective and empathetic public communication will go a long way in addressing this perception and in mobilizing our people. We need the calming presence of a professional, respected by his peers, who knows his medicine to speak on your behalf.

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