SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - July 8, 2020 - 12:00am

After nearly four months of quarantine, a private subdivision in southern Metro Manila that collects a fortune from selling vehicle stickers for the use of four streets finally reopened its gates to non-residents.

Passing through its commercial areas this week for the first time since the quarantine, I saw so many business establishments looking permanently shuttered, with “for lease / rent” signs on their front glass panels.

Most of the shuttered businesses are dining establishments, massage spas and salons – small and medium enterprises, many with services that cannot migrate online. How many jobs were lost, and how many millions of pesos in investments went down the drain in their shutdown?

This is the economic cost of the lockdowns that many countries resorted to as the SARS-coronavirus-2 that causes COVID rampaged across the planet.

You don’t know which is scarier: the risk of infection, or the loss of your livelihood.

The lockdowns were meant to immediately reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. But they worked best when the period was used to buy time for governments to significantly ramp up capabilities for COVID mass testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.

When the capabilities for containment are in place and the new public health safety protocols institutionalized, it then becomes reasonably safe to gradually reopen the economy.

Our country now has the distinction of having one of the longest quarantines in place. Have we done the other part of our homework, which is to put the necessary public health measures in place for taking the economy off the ventilator and out of the ICU?

*      *      *

Yesterday, a Johns Hopkins report ranked the Philippines second only to Indonesia with the biggest number of COVID cases in Southeast Asia.

Our mass testing capability, using the gold standard that actually tests for the presence of the coronavirus rather than just antibodies, has significantly increased, with more kits and laboratories available. I’m waiting for Dr. Raul Destura’s initial public offering for his Manila HealthTek Inc., maker of the gold standard GenAmplify real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction test.

But our mass testing capability still pales compared with many of our neighbors. We are still debating whether swift and efficient digital contact tracing apps will be used by the government to trace COVID cases or communist rebels and their sympathizers.

In recent days, COVID cases have been rising in our country by more than 2,000 a day. It could, of course, be due to more tests being conducted as more businesses reopen and employees return to work.

But it cannot be discounted that the rise is due to actual transmission, especially with the return of more mass transportation services. It is significant that the Metro Rail Transit 3 was forced to suspend all operations for several days after 186 of its employees tested positive for COVID.

The week started with debates on whether Metro Manila, still the epicenter of the pandemic, is running out of hospital beds for COVID patients.

Dismissed by Malacañang as “fake news,” the story began circulating after the Department of Health said that as of last week, 11 hospitals in Metro Manila had reported “100 percent utilization rate” of their beds dedicated to COVID patients in intensive care units.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said critical care utilization nationwide – meaning the use of hospital beds for COVID cases, ICU and isolation beds as well as mechanical ventilators – remained at a “moderate risk” of 63 percent. Yesterday, he said available general bed capacity in hospitals nationwide stood at 72 percent.

Roque cited the increase in daily testing capability from just 2,000 in March to the current 74,000.

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Today the news from certain countries isn’t encouraging. The Americans seem to have a death wish. CNN International, quoting a study of the situation in Spain published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, reported that antibodies seemed to disappear after a few weeks, making COVID herd immunity difficult to attain.

Countries such as Spain and Israel are putting the brakes on their economic reopening as COVID cases resurge. Bars and gyms are being shuttered again. Top American infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci warned that COVID is “surging back up” as US states reopen and the cases continue to soar across that country.

In the Philippines, officials have stressed that we can no longer afford to revert to the restrictions at the start of the pandemic, especially in Metro Manila and Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon), which account for the bulk of national production. The economy is on a respirator and needs emergency treatment.

So Filipinos will soon be allowed to embark on non-essential travel overseas. This is in line with the NAIA’s resumption of international flight services and the reopening of travel agencies. Churches will reopen their doors this Saturday, in time for holding anticipated masses. Sports training is gradually returning.

But the fear of infection persists, in the absence of a vaccine or cure for coronavirus disease 2019, and amid reports of a spike in infections. The fear has been stoked this week by speculative reports that the virus could be airborne and might have mutated into a more infectious although not necessarily deadlier strain.

Unless those fears can be overcome, we should be prepared for the prospect of more businesses going under, even if allowed to resume operations.

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