Quarantine phobia
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 24, 2020 - 12:00am

This happened after Metro Manila’s return to GCQ or general community quarantine:

A driver for a company with 24/7 operations began running a fever, but did not report it to the company because he’s a daily wage earner and feared he might be forced to go on 14-day leave.

In his normal routine, the driver enters the company premises in a service car through the parking area, where there is no temperature scan. He then stays in a driver’s lounge where he waits to be paged. His usual assignment is the company shuttle, which ferries employees from different departments.

As he ran a fever, there was mass testing for COVID in the company. The driver tested positive and was sent home.

Five other drivers who waited with him in the lounge have since developed a fever. They must now monitor not only themselves but also their household members for possible COVID infection. The employees ferried in the shuttle by the first driver now have the same burden.

It’s not a light health threat, as we all know: the elderly and those with serious comorbidities in the household might not survive SARS-coronavirus-2 infection. Testing, isolation and hospital confinement are expensive.

The entire multistory building of the company was shut down for three days, for disinfection, disrupting nearly all operations and depriving other daily wage earners of their earnings.

It’s reckless endangerment of others, and a criminal offense under Republic Act 11332, the “Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act.” RA 11332, signed in April 2019, repealed RA 3573, the “Law on Reporting of Communicable Diseases.”

Among the “prohibited acts” under RA 11332 is the “non-cooperation of the person or entities identified as having the notifiable disease, or affected by the health event of public concern.”

As defined by the law, a “public health emergency” is caused, among others, by the “appearance of a novel or previously controlled or eradicated infectious agent or biological toxin.” Coronavirus disease 2019 is definitely it.

The penalties include fines ranging from P20,000 to P50,000, imprisonment of one to six months, or both penalties as deemed appropriate by the court.

Despite this law, I bet the shuttle driver’s story isn’t uncommon as people become desperate to earn a living.

*      *      *

Navotas Mayor Toby Tiangco may be facing this problem among his constituents who have refused free swab testing.

The physical distancing and other restrictions imposed to curb the contagion have strangled the economy. Millions are desperate to earn a living.

When the entire Navotas was locked down while the rest of Metro Manila was eased for the first time into GCQ, the city increased its testing capacity from 300 to 2,200 people. Only 1,333 Navotas residents, however, availed themselves of the free swab tests. As of last Thursday, only 24,004 of the city’s 267,000 residents had been tested.

Talking to “The Chiefs” last Thursday on OneNews / TV5, Tiangco said priority in the free swab polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing has been given to tricycle drivers, vendors and others with high exposure to the public.

He said they have tried informing the people how much they would be saving with the free PCR tests – from P4,000 to P8,000. Still no takers.

The mayor agreed that a possible reason is the fear of quarantine for at least two weeks for those who test positive.

You wonder how widespread this concern might be, and how many infected people who refuse to be tested and treated are moving around freely.

Tiangco said the city government does not allow home quarantine, because of the difficulty of monitoring the movements of the infected, especially the mild and asymptomatic cases.

The mayor said he tried to explain to his constituents that if they wanted to beat COVID, they needed to have themselves tested, come clean about their health status and seek isolation and treatment. The sooner the city beats the contagion, the quicker they can all resume their livelihoods.

The Department of Justice has said people cannot be forced to undergo COVID testing. But for those who provide services that require widespread interaction with the public, such as mass transportation, shouldn’t a swab PCR test be required, especially if the local government is footing the bill?

*      *      *

Poverty, unfortunately, complicates efforts to curb COVID. If a tricycle driver in Navotas catches the coronavirus, for example, and transmits it to his wife, and they have five children with closely spaced births including an infant (quite common in our country), and they have no one else to care for the children, the couple will think they can’t afford to go into two-week quarantine away from their cramped shanty. Who will take care of their kids? Neighbors will likely even shun children whose parents have COVID.

If the kids have a dog, that’s an added worry. This is not being facetious. Children can get attached to their pets, as we saw in that recent heartbreaking video of the boy from an informal settlement, wailing as if his world had collapsed after his dog was run over by a truck.

One of the saddest aspects of this pandemic is how it makes us look at each other as if we all had cooties.

At the start of the contagion, we could still joke about physical distancing translating into “galit-galit muna” in colloquial Pinoy.

Five months into the lockdowns, we’re still galit-galit, but it’s no longer a joking matter. Relatives and friends are catching COVID; some have not survived.

Physical distancing of one or two meters is unnatural. I miss the natural physical interaction among human beings. But in the absence of a vaccine or cure, the only way we can get through this unprecedented public health crisis is by observing the minimum health protocols, to deprive SARS-CoV-2 of a host.

We console ourselves with the thought that if we avoid proximity even to relatives and friends, it’s not just to avoid possible infection, but also to protect them in case we have unknowingly caught COVID-19.

Treat everyone as if he or she is infected, according to health experts. Who knew how difficult it would be to follow this advice?

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