Steep price
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 5, 2020 - 12:00am

Many massage spas have shut down, and it looks like it’s for good – the shop spaces are now for rent or lease.

The fate of nail spa chains and kiddie barbershops is uncertain. As of last Saturday, most of those in shopping malls near my home were padlocked, but the interior fixtures remained in place.

Also closing one by one are shops specializing in party items such as balloons. The few lucky souls who can still afford to feel like partying these days cannot do so; the privilege is reserved only for police officials and their birthday mañanitas.

A “for lease” sign now also hangs forlornly on the facade of what used to be a widely popular bar and grill near my home that featured live bands.

For several businesses and other livelihood activities struggling to survive the COVID quarantine restrictions, the two-week return to the stricter modified enhanced community quarantine or MECQ could be the final nail in the coffin.

A common fear as people hunkered down for two weeks of MECQ is whether it could be extended beyond Aug. 18.

Yesterday, presidential spokesman Harry Roque brushed aside such fears, repeating what President Duterte said late Monday night: the country can no longer afford prolonged widespread lockdowns.

*      *      *

Fears of a prolonged MECQ, or even a return to the strictest ECQ must have triggered a fresh wave of panic-buying.

Traffic was awful in many areas last Monday following the announcement that the National Capital Region and four neighboring provinces would be reverted to MECQ. It was reminiscent of the first time that the NCR was placed under community quarantine (quickly amended to ECQ) in mid-March.

People crowded into supermarkets, stocking up on supplies for two weeks. There were also long lines outside drug stores, banks and money remittance centers.

These essential businesses will remain open throughout the MECQ, but most people are restricted to their homes and quarantine passes are again required.

If certain entrepreneurs were still having second thoughts about shutting down their businesses for good, this two-week MECQ could help them make up their mind about throwing in the towel.

This “timeout” has a steep economic price tag. We all better make sure the break will be worth it.

*      *      *

Apart from preventing a further surge in COVID cases, which could overwhelm hospital facilities and health workers, what else do the medical groups aim to achieve during the timeout?

Dr. Maricar Limpin, vice president of the Philippine College of Physicians, one of the groups that appealed to Duterte for the breather, said they hoped the government would use the timeout to recalibrate the so-called three T’s: testing, tracing and treatment, with emphasis on the first two.

Limpin admitted that they weren’t “very happy” with the MECQ instead of the ECQ they had sought. But considering the economic impact, she said the MECQ is an acceptable compromise.

On COVID testing, the medical community appears divided on the usefulness of rapid antibody tests. There’s a group that continues to tout the advantages of the rapid test particularly in workplaces, saying it allows the isolation of suspected COVID cases.

Limpin is among those who think the high rate of inaccuracy in the antibody tests has contributed to the spike in COVID cases in recent weeks, as more businesses reopened and people returned to work. Critics of the rapid test believe people whose antibody tests had false negative results and therefore failed to isolate themselves spread the coronavirus.

Limpin told “The Chiefs” on Monday night on OneNews / TV 5 that an antigen test would be better. She’s glad that the government is now considering switching to the antigen test and pooled swab testing for the virus itself.

Antibodies are produced after someone has been exposed to pathogens such as the COVID-causing SARS-coronavirus-2. But it can take up to two weeks before the antibodies are produced, so a false negative test result isn’t uncommon.

On the other hand, an antigen test shows if a person is currently infected with SARS-CoV-2 or other pathogens. While the reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction test detects genetic material, the antigen test detects proteins such as the spike proteins on the surface of SARS-CoV-2. The antigen test is also rapid and is said to be cheaper and handier to administer than the RT-PCR.

Contact tracing is equally problematic, but the medical community sees promise in the system adopted by Mayor Benjamin Magalong in Baguio City. Magalong is now part of the national anti-COVID team and is in charge of contact tracing efforts.

As for more isolation and quarantine facilities, capability expansion is a continuing effort for both the national and local governments.

*      *      *

Getting more nurses and other health professionals so the existing medical workforce can take more breaks is a tougher challenge. We’ve been told that several hospitals are seeing their nurses and other health professionals going on indefinite leave. There are few takers for job openings.

Duterte might in fact have to call in military reservists to augment the dwindling health workforce. But even with appropriate training and attractive pay, will they respond to the call? If some registered nurses themselves would rather sit out the COVID storm unemployed at home, would non-health workers stick their necks out, endangering their households with infection?

If Duterte forces it as commander-in-chief, the reservists might actually stage a revolt of sorts.

Limpin has stressed that they never called for a “revolution” against the government. She says they are willing to cooperate with the government in the recalibration of the pandemic response.

The recalibration will work best, however, only if all of us can sustain the protocols set by health experts to starve SARS-CoV-2 of hosts. Wear masks (and soon, also face shields), maintain physical distance, wash hands frequently, avoid touching the face with unwashed hands, and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

These are day-to-day inconveniences or sacrifices that most people can handle with little difficulty, but which can be challenging in shanty communities, so local government units will have to be creative in enforcing compliance in informal settlements.

With the steep cost of this two-week MECQ, we should make every moment count.

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