Never again?
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 1, 2020 - 12:00am

With all the pain everyone is going through, and more tough times ahead as the economy contracts, there should be a national resolve to develop preparedness for dealing with emerging infectious disease pandemics.

Halfway into the community quarantine, we are all wondering how much more pain we can endure. With each passing day, thousands more are being added to the ranks of the country’s poor and extremely poor.

Business groups are starting to speak up, and even the secretary of the interior and local government is saying that extending the month-long quarantine is not advisable. Public health experts may disagree, but the economic team will likely support proposals presented by top businessmen to prevent economic collapse and provide a lifeline particularly to micro, small and medium enterprises.

The proposed measures aim to maintain physical distancing and quarantine protocols after the intended end of the enhanced community quarantine in mid-April, while allowing the gradual easing of restrictions on economic activities, mobility and mass transportation.

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A common sentiment is that if people don’t die of coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19, they will die of hunger.

We’re starting to see this in the streets of Metro Manila and other parts of Luzon. Beggars roam the streets, rapping on car windows. It seems authorities are no longer even bothering to round up the street dwellers, perhaps because there is no place to put them during the quarantine.

Government dole-outs are fine, but having a sustainable livelihood is still preferred, especially if those put in charge of distributing state assistance are abusive barangay officials.

Cops themselves now look wary of infection as they use thermal scanners at checkpoints. They know that even some of their superior officers have contracted COVID, and they don’t want to go home with a killer virus ready to jump to their loved ones.

It’s good to know that the government is approving various types of testing kits, even if several are not the gold standard that tests specifically for COVID-19.

Reading up on articles about how governments are dealing with the pandemic, there’s a common thread about what has worked so far, in the absence of a cure or vaccine: not a lockdown or enhanced community quarantine, but massive testing capability together with efficient contact tracing, case monitoring and case isolation. Special quarantine areas are also needed to avoid the tragedy unfolding in our hospitals.

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The model that keeps cropping up, and cited even in scientific publications, is South Korea.

An article in the journal Science dated March 17, for example, noted that South Korea, where the COVID-19 pandemic started at around the same time as in hard-hit Italy, managed to dramatically slow down the contagion.

The article reports: And it has done so without locking down entire cities or taking some of the other authoritarian measures that helped China bring its epidemic under control. “South Korea is a democratic republic, we feel a lockdown is not a reasonable choice,” says Kim Woo-Joo, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University.

We don’t have South Korea’s financial and high-tech resources and level of preparedness for emerging infectious diseases, which it developed after the 2015 outbreak of MERS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. But we can look at the country for best practices in dealing with a highly contagious disease with no vaccine or cure.

A South Korean businessman had tracked in MERS from three Middle Eastern countries. He had been treated at three South Korean health facilities before he was accurately diagnosed and isolated. By that time, transmission was underway, which would lead to the quarantine of 17,000 people. In all, 186 were infected and 36 died of MERS in South Korea.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea can test an enviable 15,000 people per day. In comparison, since the start of the contagion in our country, 15,337 people have been tested as of yesterday afternoon.

South Korea has over 40 drive-through COVID testing stations across the country. As of March 17, it had tested 270,000 people. That’s 5,200 tests per million inhabitants. Compare this to the 75 tests per million in the United States, which now has the world’s largest number of COVID cases.

Reuters reported that even before Beijing declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan in December, South Korea was already prepared to start testing. It began on Jan. 9, with kits provided by five local companies whose production capacity is enough even for exports. In the first week of March, the government launched a smartphone app that arriving travelers must download, allowing tracking of those quarantined and recording of their symptoms.

So there has been no lockdown in South Korea. Yesterday I received an alert that an international conference I was supposed to attend in the last week of March in Seoul is now tentatively reset to late June.

Looking back on those early days of the pandemic, Lee Sang-won of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said their moves in January might have seemed like overreaction, “but there were substantial possibilities it would reach pandemic levels indeed,” Reuters reported.

These days Seoul is preparing for any possibility of COVID recurrence among its cases and affected communities.

“Have we done well? I don’t know. But we didn’t want to repeat what we went through in 2015,” Lee was quoted as saying. “Our motto was, ‘never again.’ ”

When this crisis is over, we should all work to be able to say the same thing in the Philippines. And mean it.

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