FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - August 6, 2020 - 12:00am

Last Tuesday, the Department of Health added 6,352 new cases to the country’s tally. That follows a week when new daily cases hovered around 5,000.

These are staggering numbers. We could not possibly cope with such large numbers of new infections.

Only one conclusion could be drawn from this spike: we failed to contain the virus.

We are fighting a very dangerous enemy here. Look at what is happening in Australia. After nearly shutting down infections two months ago, Melbourne now has to be locked down because of a wild outbreak. A single spark can cause a prairie fire.

Tuesday was when Metro Manila and surrounding provinces were put back on modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ). On that day, we received the most resounding evidence yet that a full reopening is simply not advisable.

On hindsight, it seems we were late in putting back tough restrictions on movement. Putting Mega Manila on MECQ status should have happened a week or so before.

But the IATF and President Duterte were not inclined to entertain proposals to return to tougher lockdown protocols. Even after the DOH agreed to the need for a return to restrictions, the health secretary had to prod the President to categorically order a return to MECQ during Sunday night’s Palace meeting. But the reluctance is unmistakable.

It took what was virtually a rebellion of the medical community to return to stricter quarantine protocols. About 80 professional medical associations issued a joint statement calling for a “timeout.”

The judicial branch indirectly supported that demand when it suspended court activities for two weeks. The Senate President was consulting with his colleagues on a proposal to suspend work for two weeks. The DOH eventually agreed with the demand of the health workers.

The President and the IATF were besieged. Duterte was clearly unhappy about how a policy reversal was dictated from outside. Only two days ago, his government announced Mega Manila will remain on GCQ status. While yielding to the demand of our health workers for a return to stricter measures, he complained about how their very public call “demeaned” government.

He was visibly irked by a Tagalog translation of a song from Les Miserables widely circulating on social media. Duterte threatened a “counter-revolution” if his critics tried to mount a “revolution.”

The public statement made by the professional medical associations and the viral music video are totally unrelated things. Our medical workers took great care to avoid politicization of their recommendations for stricter community quarantines.

It will require quite a stretch to say that our doctors are out to undermine government. There could only be one reason they came out with an unprecedented joint statement: they were not being listened to.

Our health system is under great duress. It was not robust to begin with. We do not have a network of minor medical facilities that could protect the major hospitals from being swamped.

Now our hospitals are being swamped. Many are running short of both supplies and personnel. Many health workers have themselves been put on quarantine.

We need a much better response to the pandemic than what we had seen so far. It might be too severe to call it a failure. But it is clearly wanting.

Among the most glaring weakness of our anti-COVID-19 response is the contact tracing system. This system should be rooted at the barangay level and would probably involve hundreds of thousands of volunteers.

Thailand has about a million health volunteers working on contact tracing. South Korea has relied on electronic means to track infection clusters and find the possibly infected.

Testing alone, without effective contact tracing, will not stop surges in infection such as we are experiencing now. Testing confirms the infections. Contact tracing will enable us to prevent spread.

During the first wave of lockdowns, local governments were called upon to enforce restrictions and distribute relief. But they were not immediately mobilized to establish contact tracing networks. This is the challenge that must be met during this second wave of lockdowns.

The rest of the region considers the Philippines the coronavirus hotspot. That is not a flattering designation. But that is what the numbers are telling.

Lockdowns are costly things to impose. They cripple economic activity and force many families to go hungry. We did not fully utilize the first wave of lockdowns to build our defenses. Somehow it seemed that those who make policy thought lockdowns were the solution.

This second lockdown covers cities and provinces that collectively account for two-thirds of the national economy. Today, we expect official announcement the economy is in recession. The restrictions will not help us climb out of it.

Palace spokesman Harry Roque warned that the current two-week lockdown would be our last card, our last opportunity to turn back the tide of infections. The economy simply cannot absorb the losses and government is running out of the financial means to sustain the restrictions.

But what if the virus does not cooperate?

The most optimistic scenario for a vaccine being administered to our people in significant dosage to build herd immunity is about 18 months to two years. In the meantime, we must lower infection and death rates as best we can.

This is going to be a long effort that will surely tax the people’s morale. Even as the complex scientific calculations might escape him, the President must understand his most important role at this time is to inspire our frontliners and calm our people.

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