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How resilient has our COVID-19 response been?

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - February 23, 2021 - 12:00am

In a COVID resiliency ranking made by Bloomberg towards the end of last year, the Philippines ranked 46th of 53 countries on 10 key metrics, which included growth in virus cases, overall mortality rate, testing capability, capacity of the local healthcare system, impact of restrictions on the economy, citizen’s freedom of movement, and vaccine supply agreements forged.

The Bloomberg ranking is not surprising given the 9.5 percent contraction of the country’s gross domestic product last year. Quarantine measures are now nearing one year since first imposed, while confirmed vaccine supplies for all vulnerable frontline workers have still not been secured.

Unfortunately, our government’s vow to put lives first over economic wellbeing rings hollow when we view the carnage: companies permanently closing down and workers laid off, tens of thousands of businesses struggling, and millions of households deeper in poverty.

While it can be said that the whole world has similarly suffered from the pandemic, several countries within our economic orbit have fared much better. Vietnam is ranked 10th in resiliency by Bloomberg, while Thailand is at 15th, and Indonesia at 19th.

The setback suffered by the Philippines from the gross mishandling of the pandemic is not just a substantial reduction in wealth, but also a slow climb back up from negative economic growth this year.

What we did ‘differently’

Countries experimented with different strokes to fight COVID-19 and in trying to get back their citizens adjusted to a new normal way of life. The Philippines had its own share of unique remedies.

A most irksome imposition by our government was the wearing of facemasks inside a four-wheeled vehicle, even if one was driving alone. It is easy to tell that there was no science behind this decision, and the eventual recall of this restriction proves this.

The Philippines is also perhaps the only country in the world that required the use of face shields on top of facemasks when in public places. Fortunately, Filipinos are largely compliant, and this practice likely staved off higher infection levels even as quarantines were being eased.

In public utility jeepneys, plastic has become king. People can sit closer to one another against the recommended pandemic-related health safe-distancing guidelines as long as there are plastic sheets separating them.

There was so much fuss initially about the use of acrylic or plastic “barriers” for motorcycle passengers, regardless if the person behind the driver was from the same household. This restriction was quietly dropped, not just because it wasn’t logical, but also a safety hazard and great inconvenience.

Our many quarantine levels (ECQ, MECQ, MGCQ, GCQ) have become so messed up with all the changing conditions, and with some of them containing restrictions that defy sound reasoning. What is the basis for allowing a 10-year-old to enter a mall in MGCQ areas, and not a nine-year-old?

Seen on some entertainment shows, hosts and guests wear face shields without facemasks. What gives? This practice allows an asymptomatic COVID-19 carrier to leave contagious particles floating in the air that others could breathe in.

In spite all these, surprisingly, our infection rates remain at tamped levels – not ideally small, but not overwhelmingly large that it has become a burden to the healthcare system – yet. The quarantines, though, have really been bad for the economy and Filipinos’ quality of life.

Best and worst interventions

In many tallies, the governments of New Zealand and Taiwan are regularly cited for having well managed the infection while dealing the least amount of disruption to business and society.

What did they do right? Vigilance and quick action was key. When an infection was reported, aggressive contact tracing is employed and granular lockdowns imposed. In New Zealand, the goal was to eradicate infections to zero levels as quickly as possible and then to reopen.

A well-laid out long-term plan also goes a long way. New Zealand had early on secured the necessary vaccines that would provide an additional protection for its citizens and in recognition that tourism is a vital wealth contributor to the economy.

Shutting borders to keep out infections that incoming travellers can bring is also an effective measure. Taiwan has strict guidelines for migrant workers especially those coming from countries where testing procedures are spotty.

In countries where the virus spread has reached crisis proportions, the concept of herd immunity, even if not officially espoused, had played a significant role. Developing economies here will likely not see a return to pre-pandemic conditions before 2023, and per capita income will not recover until 2025, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Rich economies that have harshly suffered from the pandemic, on the other hand, are now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The UK is fastidiously rolling out vaccinations, and the US – which holds the title for having the most number of infections and deaths in the world – is similarly ramping up its vaccination program. It literally pays to have that kind of foresight.

Breaking news: The Cebu governor’s defiant stance to block any attempt by the national government to impose stringent quarantine measures on the island province certainly brings a new twist to the country’s pandemic response. Is this behavior going to be contagious as more provinces realize the high cost of quarantines?

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We are actively using two social networking websites to reach out more often and even interact with and engage our readers, friends and colleagues in the various areas of interest that I tackle in my column. Please like us on www.facebook.com/ReyGamboa and follow us on www.twitter.com/ReyGamboa.

Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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