DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

Just when we thought we could take baby steps to reopen our economies, a new COVID variant emerged. But it shouldn’t be back to square one because we have two years worth of experience in dealing with this virus. We also now have vaccines and effective drugs.

We don’t know much about this new variant except that it has the most mutations so far, and apparently more easily transmissible. But South African doctors are saying their cases have so far been mild, no fully vaccinated persons affected yet, and despite the widening outbreak, their health system is not overwhelmed.

Experts say we need to wait two to three weeks to know more about Omicron. Vaccine makers are now adjusting their vaccines to stand up to the new variant. As of now, taking precautions like masking, social distancing, avoiding crowds, as well as getting our vaccine booster shots are our best protection.

In the meantime, governments have imposed new travel restrictions to keep the variant out of their borders. But it is a losing battle. Health Secretary Duque is correct to say that it will inevitably get into the country.

Closing borders only allows governments to buy time as they figure out what to do next.

“I think this is really an illusion of protection,” CNN medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner said. “It’s like locking a screen door. You feel like you’ve done something to protect yourself, but you really haven’t.”

CNN cites a 2020 study in the journal Science that showed international travel restrictions helped slow the spread of coronavirus to the rest of the world. But it also suggested that other mitigation measures (such as early detection, household quarantines, and hand-washing) would be more effective than travel restrictions at curbing the pandemic.

We can’t blame governments, including ours, for instinctively restricting travel in the face of unknowns about this new variant.

President Joe Biden admitted that the purpose of the ban on travel from certain southern African countries is “to give us time to get people to get protection. To be vaccinated and get the booster. That’s the reason for it.”

Biden acknowledged on Twitter that “while we know that travel restrictions can slow the spread – they cannot prevent it. We will have to face this new threat.”

What’s a better response?

An expert suggested five key components: ensuring that only vaccinated people can travel; that they have a negative PCR test; are asymptomatic; wear masks in travel and are tested on entry. He claims these measures will sift out 99.9 percent of the cases.

A Harvard epidemiologist observed in a tweet that “international travel can and should continue through this pandemic. Border closures can be devastating with consequences far beyond the virus itself.”

So what should we do for travel and to limit spread?

“KNOW BEFORE YOU GO. KNOW AFTER YOU ARRIVE. Knowledge here is the power to not inadvertently spread the virus. Test hours before travel, test daily for five to seven days each morning after arrival.”

In the meantime, my friend Manny Gonzalez sent me his reaction to Monday’s column on the NEDA COVID response scorecard.

“Here’s my COVID scorecard for our government:

“Clarity: 0 out of 10. Alphabet soup of CQs, GCQs, etc., was unintelligible and gave the impression that COVID policies were camels (proverbially, horses designed by committees).

“Logistics management: 0 out of 10. No hotline, no centralized authority for hospital admission (forcing the sick to go from one hospital to another, further spreading disease). No uniform instructions to hospitals on treatment. (I proposed this in March 2020, along with recommending masks and predicting mutations and subsequent waves.)

“Pharmaceuticals/vaccine management: five out of 10. Slow off the mark, but not much worse than many other countries with more money.

“Enforcement of public protocols (Distancing, mask-wearing, etc.): 10 out of 10. Painful for some people, but needed in a society that cheers for rule-breakers rather than rule-enforcers.

“Long-term, most people in the country are now comfortable with wearing masks and avoiding crowds, certainly more than most people in North America or Europe. General proof that our people could benefit more generally from tough love and, if needed, harsh discipline, and that being a military person is not necessarily all bad.

“Lockdown efficacy: three out of 10. Locking down a poor community without providing food and enforcement is bound to fail. No one needed a Ph.D. in epidemiology to figure that out in advance.

”Border closure: five out of 10. Was reasonably prompt in 2020, but continued too long. Started with the assumption that a returning Filipino is less likely to transmit COVID than a foreigner from a low-incidence country like Japan.

“Policy could have been more flexible, to allow for some business and tourism inbound travel, especially to isolatable areas outside Metro Manila, such as Cebu, Bohol, Palawan.

“Evidence of economic comprehension: five out of 10. Appeared not to care about wholesale destruction of the tourism and hospitality industry, small business owners and entrepreneurs, jeepney and taxi businesses. Then apparent surprise when the economy shrank by 10 percent, one of the world’s worst outcomes (an under-estimate, since the worst-affected were part of the informal, non-tax paying economy).

“However, compared with some other countries, this was par for the course. New Zealand also destroyed its tourism industry (a direct 20 percent of its economy) in the hope of totally insulating itself from COVID. The UK waffled this way and that, and still had one of Europe’s worst economic outcomes (though Brexit was also a factor).

“Actual control of COVID: 10 out of 10 (though not without a cost). Cumulative deaths 48,000. This works out to 430 deaths per million people. On a death-rate basis, the Philippines is 120th in the world, far below Canada (780), Malaysia (900), Switzerland (1300), Sweden (1500), UK (2100).

“In summary, the Philippines controlled COVID mortality well (contrary to the opinions of foreigners predisposed to automatically look down on Filipinos), but could have done better in mitigating the economic impact. Next time, leave some disciplinarians in charge, but also consider the needs of ordinary people and of small businesses.”



Boo Chanco’s email address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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