FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - February 11, 2020 - 12:00am

In less than two weeks, the first batch of Filipinos repatriated from Wuhan will in all likelihood be released from quarantine in good health. Initial medical examinations described the group as healthy.

The repatriated Filipinos are now housed at the athlete’s village in New Clark City. The prescribed medical protocols will be observed throughout their confinement.

Along with the repatriates, the airline crew and a brave bunch of government workers are confined with them. They are all volunteers. They went to extract the trapped Wuhan Filipinos, defying the obvious perils of doing so.

These brave volunteers – including a team of five from the Department of Health and a team of three from the Department of Foreign Affairs – went to the gates of hell and returned with the prize. They deserve to be celebrated.

There is no fans club for frontline government workers. In the caricature implanted in the public mind, they are dull, colorless and nameless people doing repetitive work day in and day out. But in the direst of situations, a surprising volume of heroism emerges from the ranks.

The volunteers who went to Wuhan represent the thousands of government workers involved in the fight to contain the epidemic. Each day, they report for work testing patients who might be infected, treating those hospitalized for the disease and reaching out to communities to inform the public about the new virus.

This is a war. It will be won by those in the trenches fighting an unseen foe. It will be won by medical knowhow as well as the sheer courage exhibited by those at the frontlines.

There is a moving video now circulating in social media documenting the efforts of thousands of health workers deployed to Wuhan. They wear diapers so that they do not have to slip out of their protective gear working long hours at the hospitals. The women had to have their hair cut so that nothing escapes the headgear. They sleep on the floors, nearly collapsing out of sheer exhaustion. Yet they labor on.

 Our health workers may be laboring under less desperate conditions. But these conditions are difficult nevertheless. They work long shifts in hospitals and quarantine areas inhabited by those suspected of infection.

Not everyone is infected with the empathy that drives most of our health workers to continue laboring under hazardous conditions. At least one other country, for instance, failed to launch their own repatriation mission after airline pilots refused to fly to Wuhan. Local officials of Capas, Tarlac earlier objected to bringing the evacuees to New Clark City and threatened to block the convoy on its way to the relocation sites.

When all this is over, I hope we remember to honor those who performed their duties despite the perils. They have show remarkable courage and dedication. We should salute them as exemplars.

Li Wenliang

Dr. Li Wenliang, 34, inspires health workers everywhere.

A young ophthalmologist, Li first noticed a different infection spreading among his patients in a Wuhan hospital. He remarked on it to his colleagues online. Doing that, he drew an invitation from the police. He was detained and interrogated, warned he could be charged for disrupting the social order.

In China, maintaining social control is the first concern of the authorities. The first response to Li’s discovery was denial. Because of that, an official response to the spreading epidemic was delayed by at least a few critical weeks.

Li, performing his duties as a health worker, caught the virus. He died a few days ago. Again, the initial response of Chinese authorities to the event was to deny the young heroic doctor had expired – only to admit it later.

Old instincts die hard. The old instinct in China is to control information. We saw that in earlier outbreaks where the extent of infection was minimized and the casualties downplayed. For this reason, the numbers we get from Chinese authorities are often treated with some suspicion.

In an epidemic, transparency is important to meeting the health challenges. Chinese authorities have difficulty maintaining transparency. This most recent outbreak should tear down old bureaucratic instincts.

Despite all the censorship mechanisms in place in China, a large outpouring of grief was bravely demonstrated online. The epidemic has become the most serious challenge to the rule of Xi Jinping. People are now openly criticizing the failure of the Chinese state to provide adequate health care for its people.

The health crisis has become an occasion for people to muster courage and speak out. Chinese authorities will be compelled to listen to their people for a change.

In order to blunt discontent, Beijing has undertaken the spectacle of building a 1,000-bed medical facility in Wuhan in only 10 days. Central government has deployed a large army of health workers to the Wuhan area to combat the virus.  About 65 million people at the epicenter of the epidemic are now on lockdown.

But the mistake was already committed when the police interrogated the young doctor instead of allowing him to consult with his peers. Politics stepped ahead of expertise. Because of that, precious days were lost in containing this epidemic earlier.

Even as the Chinese people grieve the death of Dr. Li and express outrage online, another advocate of free speech has disappeared in Wuhan.

Chen Qiushi, also 34, is a lawyer and citizen journalist. When the epidemic broke out, he travelled to Wuhan to document the event and disseminate information to the wider public.

 He, too, has disappeared and his account silenced.

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