Deadly letters
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - February 14, 2020 - 12:00am

The new-fangled novel 2019 coronavirus acute respiratory disease is now officially christened by the World Health Organization (WHO) as coronavirus disease-19, or COVID-19 for short. The WHO has officially tagged this highly infectious virus that seems to be getting deadlier each day. As of last Wednesday, the death toll from COVID-19 infection that has spread to 28 countries, including the Philippines, has reached 1,310.

Sporting an official name already, COVID-19 is still globally spreading and infections are still rising as in the cases here in the Philippines. And while we are having this COVID-19 scare, our country at the same time has to deal with the resurgence of yet another contagious disease that has reared its ugly head anew.

Although it is called African swine fever (ASF), the virus traces its origin – again – from China. The first reported outbreak of ASF was in Shenyang, in the province of Liaoning in China on Aug. 3, 2018. Subsequently, the Philippines became one of the 21 countries placed under global watch for contamination of ASF. The ASF has spread in the same way the COVID-19 did from animal-to-human transmission – through travel and transport of people and goods.

The virus causes a hemorrhagic fever with high mortality rates in domestic pigs and can cause death of animals as quickly as a week after infection. This virus can only infect cells in pigs and cannot enter human cells. Therefore, experts say, it is not a threat to human health. But it could be a food safety concern, if you unknowingly buy ASF-infected pork and it was not cooked well when eaten.

At the Kapihan sa Manila Bay the other day, we invited assistant secretary Noel Reyes who is the official spokesman of the Department of Agriculture (DA) and Department of Finance assistant secretary Antonio Lambino to discuss with us the ASF impact to the Philippine economy in general, and to Filipino consumers and our local hogs industry in particular.

Reyes announced at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay that President Rodrigo Duterte signed Administrative Order (AO) No. 22 last Feb. 5 mandating, among other things, all local government units (LGUs) to coordinate measures to contain the spread of this hogs virus. Foremost of which, Reyes explained, is to synchronize with the LGUs their anti-ASF measures in conformity with the DA Map Zoning Plan. Specifically, Reyes pointed to AO 22 as the basis of the review and revision, if needed, of several provincial, city and town ordinances that imposed unilateral “lockdowns” on the transport of live hogs, pork products, processed meats and canned pork and other meat products.

The marching orders contained in AO 22 were issued when President Duterte met with more than 1,500 local chief executives last Monday at the SMX convention center in Pasay City. The President was accompanied by DOH Secretary Dr. Francisco Duque III who briefed the LGU executives on the current status and preventive measures on the COVID-19, while DA Secretary William Dar discussed with them the ASF zoning plan, biosecurity and quarantine measures. The meeting was organized by the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), led by Secretary Eduardo Año who has direct supervision over the LGU executives.

“We are also seeking the assistance of the Philippine National Police and barangay leaders to help us in securing quarantine checkpoints at provincial, city and municipal borders,” the DA chief warned during the meeting with LGUs.

“On public awareness, we must ensure that meat dealers and vendors comply with the slaughter requirement. We urge the public not to bring pork and pork products from infected areas to free areas. Please comply with the restrictions imposed at airports, seaports, and bus terminals in bringing pork and pork products,” Dar told the LGU execs.

Under AO 22, Reyes pointed out, the “lockdown” of LGUs should conform with the DA protocol that the restriction should apply only to live hogs and fresh pork meats and processed pork products like longganiza and tocino. But canned pork and other canned meat products should not be covered by any “lockdown” ordinances.

Reyes rued the lack of accurate information, and perhaps due to disinformation if I may add, has unnecessarily raised paranoia of these LGUs that prompted them to impose total lockdowns.

The resurgence of ASF has lately affected hog raisers from Northern Luzon all the way to Mindanao. Initially, the ASF first infected hog farms in Rizal, Bulacan, and Metro Manila backyard hog raisers like those in Novaliches, Quezon City to the cities of Marikina and Caloocan. Thus, Reyes cited, AO 22 seeks a “whole of nation approach” in addressing the ASF contamination.

Sharing the latest updates on the ASF, Reyes disclosed, the DA in partnership with concerned LGUs has so far depopulated a total of 216,000 heads of hog since the disease surfaced last year. This represents only 1.7 percent of the 12.7 million national swine population all over the Philippines and only 13 percent of the 216,000 were actually ASF-infected.

The DA imposed the WHO-prescribed 1-7-10 protocol, or ASF-infected pigs within one kilometer (km) radius in hog farms must be culled; those within 7-km radius will be subjected to random testing on ASF infection and infected pigs will be culled but the healthy pigs would just be isolated and placed under monitoring; while hogs within 10-km radius will be placed under DA surveillance and only ASF-infected pigs will also be culled.

Speaking at the same Kapihan sa Manila Bay breakfast news forum, Lambino reassured the public that the ASF infection along with the COVID-19 will not have much dent to our country’s economy based on projected growth figures this year. Lambino credited the resiliency of the Philippine economy to the very strong macro-economic fundamentals that have been built up for the past three years of the Duterte administration.

Although the Philippine economy may be strong and robust, COVID-19 and ASF infections are deadly letters that cannot be downplayed.

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