The 2-week challenge
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 7, 2020 - 12:00am

More jeepney drivers have taken to begging in the streets. And I’m guessing that mental health hotlines are overheating from distress calls from people now at the end of their rope following the return to modified enhanced community quarantine or MECQ, even if only for two weeks.

Everyone is in agreement that this MECQ must be put to truly good use. It would be embarrassing if that banner story in Singapore’s Straits Times would come true – that with coronavirus disease-2019 cases jumping by 6,352 in a single day, on Aug. 4, the Philippines could emerge as Southeast Asia’s new COVID-19 hotspot.

Maybe the newspaper wants to make Singaporeans feel that their COVID situation is not as bad as they think.

But we can acknowledge that 6,352 cases in a day is indeed worrisome. The daily spikes in new COVID infections prompted medical groups to issue their appeal – granted by a clearly miffed President Duterte – for a “timeout.” Instead of the proposed return to the strictest enhanced community quarantine, however, those worried about economic collapse managed to extract a compromise: Duterte approved a modified ECQ.

Amid the MECQ, economic concerns will likely grow among policy makers following the report yesterday that the country plunged into its worst recession on record in the second quarter, with gross domestic product contracting 16.5 percent from a year ago. Analysts are seeing the country going through one of the slowest post-pandemic recoveries in the region, even after resorting to one of the toughest COVID lockdowns.

Professors Ranjit Rye and Guido David of OCTA Research in the University of the Philippines, whose math-based projections of COVID contagion have been frighteningly accurate, had warned that the infections could hit 220,000 by the end of August if Metro Manila and neighboring areas remained under general community quarantine.

With the return to MECQ, the two professors – who stress that they are analysts, not crystal ball gazers – are projecting (not predicting, they stress) the scary figure of 220,000 to go down by 50,000 to 70,000.

Facing OneNews / TV5’s “The Chiefs” last Tuesday, however, the two clarified that the projected reduction figures are based on one month of MECQ, not just two weeks.

Still, the two-week MECQ could mean a slowdown in infections, the two professors said – which is a breather sought by the 100 medical organizations so hospitals and their health workers don’t become overwhelmed.

Unless response capacities aren’t ramped up during the two weeks, however, we could soon be back in the same situation, facing both economic and health care collapse.

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The Department of Health has embarked on a program for capacity building during the two-week challenge and beyond. DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire has expressed confidence that COVID cases can be “contained effectively and efficiently” during the MECQ.

The principal targets are the crowded slums of Metro Manila, where physical distancing is impossible for the majority of residents. Personnel of the DOH and Department of the Interior and Local Government are going from house to house, with 100 percent household coverage as the target. Residents with symptoms or who have been in contact with COVID cases will be given free swab tests.

Suspect, probable and positive cases will be taken to isolation centers for all expenses paid quarantine and treatment. Cluster cases will be identified and isolated. Masks, face shields and hygiene kits are being distributed for free to the needy.

Areas where people congregate such as public markets will have visual and other cues to maintain physical distancing.

The model, according to the DOH, is India’s largest slum, Dharavi – a 2.5-square-kilometer area where 850,000 people live. The concept is to “chase the virus.”

At the end of the two-week MECQ, the DOH expects an end to the use of rapid antibody test kits to screen for COVID. You can guess what the DOH thinks of the controversial antibody test from the acronym given to it: RATS.

Instead, pooled testing will be launched next week, beginning in Makati, using the gold standard reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction swab test.

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The government might also want to ponder the observation of Dr. Gene Nisperos of the UP College of Medicine and the medical group Second Opinion, who said the task forces in charge of responding to a public health crisis are dominated by retired military officers rather than medical professionals. Inevitably, the crisis is approached as a peace and order problem rather than a public health issue.

Professors Rye and David also noted the lack of a person in charge of ensuring accurate data, which is critical in any crisis response.

The other day my mother, reverted to senior citizen quarantine under the MECQ, asked aloud, tongue-in-cheek: Am I still allowed to breathe?

It was not an entirely flippant question, considering that even talking is now prohibited on railway services, and masks with vents have been banned in certain hospitals due to risks of pathogen transmission.

So it’s good to hear all those programs of the DOH during the two-week challenge.

Seeing, of course, is believing. We’re holding our breath for the results.

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