Shared misery
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 25, 2020 - 12:00am

Been there, done that… or more accurately, still doing that.

This is the feeling among distressed Pinoys as California, New York and now London also impose various stages of quarantine to contain the coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19.

Misery loves company. The sight of people in many other countries now also forced to impose community quarantines and lockdowns is easing the pain of social distancing – or, as some experts prefer to call it, physical distancing.

With the still worsening tragedy in Italy and the spread of COVID-19 in Europe and the United States, we can see the importance of keeping a safe distance from other people. Our government officials, however, will have to explain over and over the ultimate objective behind physical distancing, which is to starve the coronavirus of hosts.

The officials may have to avoid using the word “starve” though, as hunger is becoming a serious problem for those who have lost their livelihoods.

In the supermarkets, pharmacies and even public markets, people now make an effort to observe the one-meter distance from each other. A cough or sneeze, whether you wear a mask or not, earns you dagger looks.

The horrific death toll in Italy, the galloping death rate in the US and now the death of our heroic doctors in the Philippines have brought home the seriousness of the threat posed by the pandemic. 

These days when we look at the crowds in Miami and Sydney’s Bondi Beach, we think – there are the next COVID hot zones.

Two issues are maddening unknowns. One is how long the crisis will last. The second is whether quarantines and lockdowns will work – and what happens if they don’t?

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People will be watching the consequences if US President Donald Trump makes good on his plan to quickly end the stay-at-home orders in several states including New York and California, arguing that it would ruin the economy. A businessman himself, Trump argues that the cure must not be worse than the disease.

The situation abroad brings home the horror of the situation, even in areas under lockdown. Italy is particularly scary, because its death toll spiked after its public health system became overwhelmed and its health workers themselves were the ones decimated.

We’re starting to see this in Metro Manila, unfortunately. It’s the reason why there is such public fury over reports that politicians including asymptomatic lawmakers and their household members got priority in access to the acutely limited supply of COVID testing kits.

Tone-deaf congressmen compounded the public’s anger by likening the House members who conducted a special session, with most of the representatives safely in teleconference, to the health workers who are on the front lines of this terrible battle.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III apologized for having himself tested by the Department of Health (DOH). Other senators seem to be simply waiting for the storm to blow over.

The usual suspects in the House also said they would not apologize for their memorably atrocious epal moment.

With each death of a health worker, however (another doctor passed away yesterday), that epal image could rankle all the way to May 2022.

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From the socialite who called the great unwashed at the checkpoints “motherf*****s” to the VIPs now jumping the line for COVID testing, this pandemic is highlighting the yawning inequality in our country. Social distancing takes a different meaning in such contexts.

The prioritization of public health services for VIPs is hardly surprising in our society. Despite the universal public health care program, which is just starting to be rolled out in a few pilot areas because of funding constraints, adequate health care remains a luxury for millions of Filipinos.

Everyone is excited about the arrival of 100,000 donated test kits. But how many of these will go to testing even asymptomatic VIPs together with their spouses and children, drivers, bodyguards and household helpers? Considering the number of lawmakers, local government executives and VIPs in other sectors, possibly 40 to 50 percent of those masks will go to the country’s .001 percent.

Health professionals grouse on social media about VIPs who even demand to be tested at home, thus further taking away more medical staff from hospitals. Thanks to social media, these VIPs are being exposed, although not all are shamed into apologizing.

Last Monday, rumors swirled that director Celia Carlos of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine had been sacked for refusing to give VIP testing to a politician on trial for plunder. Health Secretary Francisco Duque, who signed the original memo, had to clarify that DOH Assistant Secretary Nestor Santiago would merely exercise oversight functions to allow Carlos to focus on the COVID challenges faced by the RITM.

That sounds like Carlos is seeing her authority eroded. But she can take comfort in the fact that health professionals are becoming increasingly vocal about their problems. The use of scarce testing kits and personal protective equipment is now being closely watched.

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Health workers are overwhelmed even in wealthy economies. As the Italians themselves described their dire situation, their public health system had collapsed. Medical professionals in New York are lamenting that they are running out of supplies and protective gear.

We all hold on to any glimmer of an end to this ordeal. A vaccine is still a year away if we want to avoid the problems associated with the anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia. But scientists are focusing on treatment – if only to clear the respiratory afflictions that can kill those with underlying conditions, such as those undergoing regular dialysis or who have lupus or cardiac problems.

As of yesterday, there were reports of supplies running low on the anti-malarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which are undergoing what a health expert says are “very preliminary” trials as COVID treatment, after Trump mentioned the trials.

I don’t think there’s even a “cure” for a viral infection, but in this time of uncertainty, people are prepared to believe even in unicorns.

Seeing what’s happening worldwide, we find some comfort – cold as it may be – to know we’re not alone in our misery.

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