Not on the same wavelength

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - May 22, 2020 - 12:00am

By the estimates of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging and Infectious Disease (IATF-MEID), some 42,000 more of our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) coming back from various parts of the world are set to return to our country within the next few days. Whether they are sick, infected or not of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19), they are all potential carriers of this deadly flu-like contagion.

From the monitoring of the World Health Organization (WHO) the global tally of cases of people infected with COVID-19 has already reached the tragic milestone of 5 million as of yesterday. “We still have a long way to go in this pandemic,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference. The WHO is keeping a close tab of the COVID-19 pandemic affecting more than 200 countries and territories where our OFWs and seafarers are employed and deployed across the globe.

From the latest official estimates of the Philippine government, there are about 10.3 million OFWs employed abroad. About 200,000 of them are Filipino seafarers on board international-flagged cruise and cargo ships across the oceans. As of yesterday, there were 25 cruise ships docked at the Manila Bay anchorage area waiting to offload hundreds of our Pinoy seamen still awaiting their turn for COVID testing and quarantine.

This was after the IATF gave the go-signal for these foreign-flagged ships to dock here precisely to enable our Pinoy seamen to get a free transport back to the Philippines instead of the government spending for their repatriation abroad. The returning Pinoy seamen are being processed by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) as lead agency while the swabbing and COVID-infection testing are handled by the Philippine Red Cross.

According to the PCG, the Red Cross has already processed the test results of the 23,000 OFWs out of the total 31,330 OFWs and seamen who underwent the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test as of May 20. There are so far 14,669 who tested negative for COVID-19. They have already started going home after completing the 14-day mandatory quarantine period. But still many more of them are presently in Metro Manila undergoing the required 14-day isolation in various quarantine facilities set up in hotels and jointly paid for by their respective manning agencies and the government.

National Task Force against Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) response chief implementer Carlito Galvez, Jr. admitted this serious concern of the government over the prospects of influx of returning OFWs and Pinoy seamen amid the noticeable slowing down of new cases of COVID-19 infection in our country. Participating last Tuesday at the Senate Committee of the Whole hearing in their so-called “hybrid” tele-conferencing on the government’s anti-COVID-19 campaign, Galvez disclosed about 42,000 more OFWs and seamen are set to return for the rest of this month and in June.

Galvez was visibly relieved to report to the Senators the government managed to identify those who are COVID positive and prevented further spread of the infection. On the other hand, the government is trying to decongest the quarantine facilities by expediting the release all the OFWs that have been tested negative for COVID-19. The Philippine government was forced to suspend flights to pick up OFWs stranded abroad for at least one week while decongesting the quarantine facilities.

Galvez gave the same assessment to President Rodrigo Duterte on the influx of returning OFWs from different parts of the world is one of the serious concerns at of the Task Force. “At present, our problem is bigger. Mr. President, I would like to inform you that we have a bigger problem on the returning OFWs,” Galvez conceded.

Although not palpable enough to conclude there is “flattening of the curve” of COVID-19 cases in the country, Galvez echoed anew the optimistic assessment of the IATF during their meeting with President Duterte aired over government-PTV-4 late Tuesday night at Malacanang.

“The result of the test conducted by the Philippine Red Cross is 22,432 and out of this 22,432, there are 465 who were positive. If it had not been PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tested, these 465 would have been the second wave,” Galvez pointed out.

“We cannot afford a second, or third wave to happen,” President Duterte warned. 

The Chief Executive made the warning last May 12 a few days before he relaxed the lockdown rules in several parts of the country. So where did Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Dr. Francisco Duque III get the information to categorically state the Philippines is now on the “second wave” of the COVID-19 contagion?

Speaking at the resumption of the Senate hearing last Wednesday, Duque quoted DOH epidemiologists and health expert consultants traced the start of the COVID-19 infection in the Philippines from the three Chinese nationals who came here as tourists and were found positive for the virus infection last January.

One of the DOH consultants, Dr. John Wong cited the case of the three Chinese nationals constituted “the first small wave” of COVID-19 pandemic here in our country. “When we say ‘wave,’ it’s the rise in cases and then falls, be it big or small,” Wong explained.

From his reckoning, the second wave in the Philippines started in March during which 10,000 COVID cases were recorded. Since March when the daily average of COVID was 500 cases, Wong noted, there is already a “flattening of the curve” with the cases now averaging 220 cases a day.

The next day, Senators and even fellow IATF members led by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea contradicted Duque. “When did the second wave happen? That, we will have to see because as far as I know, we are not yet on the second wave,” Medialdea quipped. Instead, he asked everyone to pray that the Philippines does not reach the “second wave (of COVID-19 pandemic) because it will be very hard for everyone.”

Obviously, the debate is largely due to different timelines of the COVID-19 cases in the Philippines. Hence, they are all thinking and speaking not on the same wavelength.

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