DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

It is difficult to define what normal is these days. As for new normal, it means it isn’t normal.

Even the government is ambivalent. Sure, the number of new cases is significantly down. That’s why they dared to downgrade our alert status to level 1. Good news for business. But our health authorities still remind us to stick to health precautions or else the “new normal” will be short lived.

Of course a lot of us are raring to recover our lives that were placed on hold two years ago by this virus. But in our eagerness to make up for lost time, let us not forget that the virus is still around.

It is the election season and our officials want us to think they successfully dealt with the virus. So they sign a piece of paper saying we are now on Alert Level 1. But what does that mean in practical terms?

The shift to Alert Level 1 means there will be more economic activities that will drive the economy. That’s why they are declaring it.

Under Alert Level 1, we can travel anywhere in the country regardless of age and comorbidities or health risks. Public transportation will be at full seating capacity. We can make summer vacation plans and save the domestic tourism industry.

All establishments, private offices and workplaces may operate at full capacity. But flexible and alternative work arrangements may still go on.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Chua said the shift to Alert Level 1 would generate P9.4 billion in additional economic output per week. Metro Manila will come back to life and it contributes a third of the country’s overall gross domestic product.

Secretary Chua also said the shift to Alert Level 1 would reduce the number of unemployed Filipinos by 170,000.

The Management Association of the Philippines (MAP), speaking for big business, agrees that it is about time to get economic recovery started.

“The transition to Alert Level 1 is a welcome development as it gives our economic recovery a significant boost… With no more capacity constraints, service businesses, such as restaurants and retail shops, would regain lost patronage…

“Allowing people to return to their offices and workplaces will benefit more than just the economy. It will also address mental health issues caused by prolonged isolation and a lack of regular face-to-face interactions. Alert Level 1 also indicates that we are prepared to live with the virus by treating it as endemic.”

Not too fast, MAP. The DOH said COVID isn’t endemic yet. Technically, we are still in an epidemic.

In the US, CNN Health reports that plummeting COVID-19 case counts “are leading to lifted mask mandates and more conversations about steps toward normalcy – but more people are dying of the coronavirus now than during most points of the pandemic.”

CNN noted that COVID-19 used to be “most deadly for the elderly and people with certain health conditions. Now, the people dying from COVID-19 tend to be younger than before, and they’re overwhelmingly unvaccinated.”

As for our Alert Level 1, our government is just transferring responsibility for not getting sick with COVID to individuals. DOH warned, if we let down our guards and disregard the health protocols, COVID cases can rise again.

Alert Level 1 was declared because the generals running our COVID response realized they cannot restrict our movements and control our behavior forever.

An article in the New York Times concedes that every COVID restriction has public-health benefits, as well as potential social and economic downsides.

Easy to say follow the science, but as NYT pointed out, “science, at its best, can give us an accurate picture of what those trade-offs are. But it cannot resolve the question – which is a fundamentally political one – of which trade-offs are worth making.”

So, each one of us must determine what our risk tolerance level is.

“Those concerned about contracting the virus or transmitting it to others would retain the option of one-way masking, which experts say can still confer good protection,” NYT pointed out.

The NYT gave these guidelines that are useful to keep in mind as mask mandates are lifted: one person with N95/KN95/KF94: 90+ percent protection; one person with surgical mask: ~50 percent protection; two people with surgical mask: ~75 percent protection and two people with N95/KN95/KF94: 99 percent protection.

If you are vaccinated, boosted, and wearing a well-fitted N95 or similar mask indoors, “your risk is extremely low,” Joseph Allen, a COVID and ventilation expert at Harvard, told The Atlantic.

Abdullah Shihipar, a public-health researcher based at Brown University, wrote in Slate: “If we share the burden of masking in public spaces, not only will vulnerable people be better protected, but cases will go down faster.”

That means, people must develop a sense for the common good. Well… good luck with that. We have seen that even with a mask mandate, many people are lax and wear flimsy masks below their noses.

So it is really up to you how you protect yourself. We are still at war with the virus, but the virus is now in guerilla mode, probably mutating itself to evade the effect of vaccines and therapeutics designed to eliminate it. A super variant may still arise.

We have developed habits during this pandemic that are good to keep. Working from home for those who could, is worth keeping.

I still decline invitations to lunches and meetings and would rather do Zoom and FaceTime or text messages on Viber or Messenger. I find technology useful, efficient, and convenient. And I save on gasoline.

Alert Level 1 means nothing to me. I will still wear a mask when I go out, avoid crowds, and do social distancing. I hope buildings, shopping centers, groceries, restaurants improve their ventilation system (specially in elevators) or the government should require them to do that.

The COVID pandemic taught us a lot of things worth keeping. Many are basic hygienic practices. The Japanese have been masking for decades when they have a cold. Protecting ourselves and everyone else around us from viruses is responsible citizenship. No, we are not back to normal yet.



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


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