The frontlines
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 31, 2020 - 12:00am

As Heroes’ Day approached, billboards were put up, extolling certain persons and groups as Philippine heroes. There have been differences in the selection of individuals portrayed as national heroes, but all seem to agree on one particular group: health frontliners.

The health professionals, on the other hand, have said in different interviews that the real frontlines in the war against coronavirus disease 2019 are the home and workplace, and the real frontliner is the individual.

World War C, they say, starts at our doorstep.

By the time a person requires medical care and hospitalization for COVID-19, SARS-coronavirus-2 can already claim partial victory, since it has already settled into a host, the health workers point out.

So if we truly want to show our appreciation for the toil and risks being taken by our heroic medical frontliners, the best thing we can do for them is to avoid COVID and stay out of the hospital.

As the economy gradually reopens, unfortunately, we are all finding out how complicated COVID avoidance can be.

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Several establishments such as supermarkets, for example, are asking customers to fill out contact tracing forms, with the name, date of visit to the establishment, contact number, email and home address even if incomplete. Some establishments require you to write down your temperature registered in their scanner. Lines at supermarket entrances have been slowed down by this requirement.

This is presumably so they can notify you in case the establishment has a COVID outbreak. But how many people enter a large supermarket every day? Can the supermarket actually contact everyone in case of an outbreak? And do people write accurate information on the forms?

Last Saturday in a recently opened outlet of a major supermarket chain, I dutifully filled out such a form after going through a temperature scan and stepping on a disinfecting footbath. So I was dismayed that at the checkout counter, the cashiers and bag boys were chatting and milling about, completely oblivious to physical distancing.

To illustrate the complexity of following the health protocols, an executive of a large company recently bemoaned the difficulty of contact tracing to determine who should be subjected to swab testing.

Like many people in this pandemic, the executive has been taking COVID 101, internalizing terms such as R-naught, positivity rate, antigens and fomites.

Some details the executive has taken note of: you need at least 15 minutes of constant exposure to a COVID-positive person to be infected. But in an air-conditioned, windowless, enclosed workplace, what’s the physical distancing required for that 15 minutes of exposure? Is a minimum of one meter enough?

SARS-CoV-2 supposedly can linger for up to two days on fomites or non-living objects that can transmit pathogens, such as computer keyboards and doorknobs, so regular disinfection is needed.

Like many large companies today, the executive’s workplace is full of computers. No one has exclusive use of the desktops, plus the many other expensive gadgets all over the facility. The executive’s problem, following a recent COVID infection of one of the workers, is that most of their employees are now worried about fomite contamination and are finding all sorts of excuses to request leaves or work-from-home arrangements, which could cripple their operations.

These days, it’s complicated to draw a line between employees whose work environment truly puts them at risk of infection, and those who are simply paranoid or praning.

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Following COVID health protocols is even more challenging at home.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, now into his second COVID infection, received flak for saying people should practice physical distancing at home. The Department of the Interior and Local Government had to clarify that he did not call for distancing during sex, as portrayed on social media. The DILG warned of sanctions against purveyors of that piece of “fake news.”

The exact quotation, which accompanied a photo of Año, was: “Sa bahay, dapat may social distancing din (At home, there should be social distancing as well).”

If you think about it, the admonition makes sense, especially in households where there are members who cannot afford to work from home. I know people who contracted the coronavirus from their children and other immediate family members. The elderly and young children are particularly vulnerable to transmission from relatives who have to go to offices or earn a living outside the house.

Of course the admonition is difficult to heed and even sounds silly for many couples, who would rather get infected together than sleep separately. But infection among couples is pretty common – and sadly, some have not survived COVID.

A senior I know who lives in a community that is under lockdown because of the high number of COVID cases is now terrified of even stepping out of his house for some air, after the couple who lived near his home died within a week of each other. He has yet to confirm if the cause of the deaths was COVID. But the couple might have opted for home quarantine and did not inform authorities of their infection, and he’s not taking any chances.

Apart from family members, there are also households across the country with maids and drivers, some of whom go home to their families regularly.

Several prominent personalities have already reported contracting COVID from their drivers.

So yes, practicing physical distancing within the household also makes sense, complicated as it may be.

Health frontliners will appreciate it. The fewer the COVID patients they have to attend to, the better we can show our appreciation for their heroism in this pandemic.

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