For free, not for profit
CTALK - Cito Beltran (The Philippine Star) - July 8, 2020 - 12:00am

Testing for COVID-19 should either be for FREE or be done without profit.

This is not meant as a campaign slogan, it is a call to President Rodrigo Duterte to use his executive power to issue an EO that at the very least will require all hospitals, clinics, laboratories and testing facilities to render COVID-19 tests at cost. Everyone agrees and supports the need for mass testing but we will never get there for as long as people and politicians are allowed to add on a profit margin to the tests. From what I remember in my talks with Presidential Adviser on Entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion, the rapid tests are from P750 to P1,000 commercially and the swab tests are in the area of P2,500. In an article that featured the recently inaugurated San Miguel Corp. COVID testing facility, it was mentioned that the testing costs only P2,500 and that already covered all the needed materials and lab technicians. Guests who were tested at the SMC facility got their test results within 24 hours, but an insider claimed that the results were actually ready under four hours! SMC Boss Ramon Ang even took a jab at some groups that put up swabbing booths for mere publicity but in actuality are not sustained with kits and consumables: “Only for show.”

In contrast to that, if people go to government or private hospitals or laboratory testing facilities, they will be charged somewhere between P4,000 to P8,000 especially in places where there are few hospitals and testing centers. The highest amount I heard of was P15,000 at a very exclusive hospital. But that is not as bad as the story I heard where a Congressman solicited a testing set-up from a very large food corporation, brought the equipment to his province in the south, parked the equipment inside a private hospital which in turn now charges P8,500 for COVID-19 tests! Even certain NGOs have gotten into the game by using their testing facilities as their instrument for fund raising while bragging about the public service they are extending.

Given how the government’s approach to convincing the public to follow community quarantine protocols has now fully deteriorated to a point where they sound like the traditional mother or nanay warning their kids “Lagot kayo pag dating ng tatay niyo!” or one who simply declares in exasperation “Bahala kayo sa buhay niyo,” it is time for President Duterte to follow his instinct and experience, to take control of the war against COVID because some of his most trusted people are simply not up to it!

For starters, the President should prioritize and focus all efforts and funds to mass testing for free or AT COST. If people can buy all sorts of toys, shirts or shoes, I’m confident that they would readily pay for COVID-testing in much the same way they pay for all sorts of clearances and documents when applying for work here or abroad. Just to know that the tests are readily available and affordable would encourage people who may be feeling symptoms to immediately be tested.

From there, President Duterte should conduct community isolation not quarantine, meaning those communities cleared of COVID-19 should be kept COVID Free, if needed barangay by barangay, there should be a national sanitation and disinfection program where every household, individual, community and company are required to wash down and disinfect. The government should abandon the western-based privacy concerns of infected individuals and begin to announce cases, names and locations of incidence so people will know. This has worked in the past particularly with airline passengers and will reduce the need to hire thousands of contact tracers. With people barely moving around, most of us have a pretty good idea where we have been and whom we may have been in contact with. All people found positive should be isolated in hotels, motels or available dorms, not in tents. Quarantine the sick – not the healthy.

Instead of wasting valuable air time and expertise conducting Pressers, President Duterte should tell his people to spend all their time and energy repeating simple messages on wearing face masks, how to disinfect and sanitize their homes and work places, how to increase their immunity and resistance to disease, the value of social distancing and the benefits of doing stuff at home and minimizing movement to essential travel. The fact is, the government took these reminders for granted which is why we still have problems. What is the point of putting a barangay under lockdown if the place is filthy, people can’t afford to buy face masks, have no access to disinfectants or are not made aware of the importance of sanitation in the home.

After looking back at everything we have been through, President Duterte might be better off anticipating or projecting problems before they happen instead of the current model that the IATF seems to be applying which is “damage control” or reacting to things as they happen. Early on we already raised the question: “What’s happening in the urban poor communities?” It was really intended to raise the possibility that if hell or COVID would break out it would be there. Two months later, it’s there! But unlike the first batch of victims who were rich and got the infections from traveling and could afford hospitalization, our urban poor are in the millions, live in compromised environments and won’t go to doctors unless they are already very ill or dying!

If the end all and be all of the battle against COVID-19 lies squarely on the President, I humbly suggest to him in summary: Test at cost, Test and Tell, Isolate-segregate-differentiate, and equally as important educate. If we truly are in round 2 or the second wave, I humbly suggest, get fresh players, Sir!

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