Safety first
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - February 5, 2020 - 12:00am

Travelling abroad especially via airplane has become a risky undertaking during these times of global-scale spread of a highly contagious novel coronavirus acute respiratory disease, or 2019-nCoV for short. According to The World Health Organization (WHO), there were 427 reported deaths all confirmed as related to 2019-nCoV infection reported as of yesterday.

This was a day after we arrived back here in Manila last Monday coming from a familiarization tour of the research and development facility of the Philip Morris International (PMI) based in Lausanne, Switzerland. We embarked on this trip last Sunday, Jan. 26 along with several editors of various national newspapers who were invited to a familiarization trip to one of the world’s biggest cigarette manufacturers.

While it may seem to be a press junket trip, it was nothing of that sort. The American giant cigarette-maker is engaged in intensified information campaign about the harm reduction processed by science and technology into their newly developed heated tobacco device called IQOS and heated tobacco product branded as Heets. Billed as smoke and ash-free compared to regular cigarettes, the PMI is set to launch IQOS and variants of Heets in the Philippines by the second quarter of this year.

Before the outbreak of 2019-nCoV, health and anti-smoking advocates and medical experts have clashed over the harmful effects of heavy smoking of cigarettes and nicotine addiction to smokers as well as to secondhand smokers. Carcinogens from cigarette tars have been identified as cancer-causing while smoking leads to other medical problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These were related to the intense debates in the 18th Congress about regulating the sale of electronic nicotine device system, or ENDS, that include electronic cigarettes, vapes and other heated tobacco products like IQOS.

Before we left last week for this trip, there was yet no confirmed corona virus strain nCOV. By the time we arrived back here, there was already one fatality in the Philippines due to 2019-nCOV infection. A 38-year-old Chinese female succumbed directly due to 2019-nCOV infection while her 44-year-old husband also contracted it but actually died due to HIV. They were tourists when they flew in last Jan. 25 to spend the Chinese Lunar New Year here. They came all the way from Wuhan – the ground zero of the deadly nCOV.

Though there was initial dilly-dallying on total ban on travel to and from China, the Philippine government eventually implemented the ban.

Bitter critics of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte likened the move to allowing the horses get out before closing the gates. They blamed this to President Duterte’s pro-China policy and glossed over the fact the 2019-nCoV has infected thousands of Chinese, many of whom have travelled to the Philippines and other countries to celebrate their Chinese Lunar New Year holidays. 

Outside China, 2019-nCoV infection has spread in 24 countries already from as far as the United States, Australia, to neighboring Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan. On the possibility of expanding travel ban to other countries affected by 2019-nCoV, President Duterte replied: “It’s always good to go by the WHO. We go by the regulations that will be given out by the WHO. We cannot act on our own.”

To contain the spread of the virus, the Philippines on Sunday expanded its travel ban to include all foreigners coming from China, widening an earlier restriction that covered only those from Hubei province. In a late Monday press conference at Malacanang Palace, President Duterte assuaged the Filipino people their government is on top of the situation, citing that only one person died of this disease so far.

But at the public hearing of the Senate committee on health chaired by Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go, the Duterte Cabinet officials who are members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on 2019-nCoV headed by Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Dr. Francisco Duque were seemingly still debating among themselves. Department of Transportations (DOTr) Secretary Arturo Tugade came short of castigating Duque for not tasking agencies under the DOTr to help in back-tracing airplane passengers who might have caught the 2019-nCoV from the Chinese couple. Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., on the other hand, told the Senators that he readily submitted the entire DFA at the disposal of the DOH Secretary for any assistance necessary to contain the spread of this health/medical crisis.

On the latest directive by President Duterte, government agencies that included the Department of Tourism (DOT), Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat immediately advised its foreign offices in China to relay to all stakeholders involved in bringing markets to the Philippines to temporarily ban “the entry of any person, regardless of nationality, except Filipino citizens and holders of Permanent Resident Visa issued by the Philippine Government, directly coming from China and its Special Administrative Regions, Hong Kong, and Macau, in order to contain the further spread of 2019-nCoV.”

Other than Chinese tourists, the country is also host to dozens of Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGO) that employ thousands of Chinese workers, many of whom were hired because of the need to serve Mandarin-speaking clientele gamblers in China. Chinese tourists accounted for 22 percent of the 7.5 million visitors to the Philippines between January and November last year. The DOT reported China is the second-biggest group of international travelers to the country.

“The safety and protection of our citizens thriving in our tourist spots, the employees of the tourism sector, and domestic and foreign tourists alike remain the Department of Tourism’s priority. We call on everyone in the tourism industry to follow these directives until the World Health Organization and the Philippine government deems it safe to resume travel,” the DOT Secretary appealed.

Safety first is foremost before anything else is considered. And that includes sacrifices that all must pitch in.

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