Slow reopening
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 16, 2020 - 12:00am

Virus transmission and positivity rates have slowed down, as even the OCTA Research fellows have noted. Last Wednesday, new COVID-19 cases fell to an encouraging 1,910, with 78 deaths and 579 recoveries.

Sigh… remember the good old days when a national total of just three new COVID cases already triggered panic? It seems like another lifetime ago. And we are in fact headed for a new way of life. Just as the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States permanently altered travel and several other aspects of life all over the planet, this coronavirus pandemic is changing, most likely for good, the way we see pathogens.

In our society, I don’t know if we will ever revive cheek bussing or beso-beso with casual acquaintances. Will we become like the Japanese and Koreans, bowing instead of shaking hands as greeting? For sure, a number of us will be like the Japanese, Koreans and ethnic Chinese, many of whom have been wearing masks for years especially when riding planes and other modes of mass transportation, to keep out germs. In fact, face masks could become a long-term requirement on all flights, and temperature checks part of pre-boarding and airport arrival procedures worldwide.

Department stores will have to introduce disposable head, body and foot covers if they want to revive apparel consumption. People especially women want to fit apparel before buying them. Such disposable items are already widely used in germ-averse countries such as Japan, where the spit or saliva COVID test – cheap, accurate and with quick result – is now also being used even at airports.

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The most challenging, unnatural and economically ruinous COVID health protocol probably won’t be permanent – but I think physical distancing will be around for another year. Even when a vaccine or cure is rolled out commercially, it will take time before people become comfortable again with physical proximity. What might overcome such fears, before a vaccine or cure becomes available, is if there is a widely accessible, cheap, accurate COVID test with quick results. Policy makers should speed up assessment of the saliva test for use in the country ASAP instead of waiting for those who invested in swab test kits to use up their supplies. In our previous lifetime, we derided as paranoid health freaks people who carried alcohol bottles in their bags and washed their hands a lot. Today in our new normal, such habits could be contributing to the flattening of the COVID curve. And the government is counting on such healthy habits to be sustained, thus allowing for a wider reopening of economic sectors.

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Last Wednesday, the government allowed 10 top hotels in Metro Manila to reopen for “staycations.” Hotels have also reopened their restaurants for dine-in, with modifications in buffet setups. Room disinfectants include anti-virus sprays and heavy-duty ultraviolet devices. Reports about the hotel reopening were accompanied by initial interviews with some people known to be avid travelers. The message wasn’t too encouraging: they were happy about the news but said they would rather wait for a COVID vaccine before indulging in staycation pampering.

The hotels may have to wait for the easing of international travel before this aspect of their business picks up. Domestic travelers usually stay with relatives in Metro Manila; foreign visitors have no choice but to stay in hotels. At least it seems more people are returning to hotel restaurants. In recent weeks, for the first time since the lockdowns, I’ve had invitations to lunch meetings (all turned down, unfortunately; I’m chicken). Clearly, more people are venturing out and getting tired of Zoom meetings.

This should be good news for owners of dining establishments – one of the sectors hardest hit by the COVID quarantines. But they will need patience and deep resources. This recovery is going to move as slowly as molasses, unless a vaccine that politicians like US President Donald Trump are promising truly becomes available by next month, and can be mass-produced for global commercial rollout by yearend. As of last Wednesday, President Duterte appeared to have tempered expectations, saying a vaccine could become widely available by April next year. That’s another half year of wearing masks, hand washing and more distancing. People are weary of the health protocols. But people by now are also aware of the consequences of catching COVID.

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Many Filipinos especially in Metro Manila and neighboring regions are now fully aware of what happens when you become infected. First, you pose a danger to your entire household including pets, and also to your colleagues and friends. If you lack a private room with its own toilet and bath, and if there are people with comorbidities at home such as the elderly and pregnant women, you must isolate for 14 days in a quarantine facility that might be less comfortable and surely with less privacy than home. You might not be able to continue working from the quarantine facility.

The possibility of being forced to go into 14-day quarantine without work is one of the reasons for the reluctance of daily wage earners such as market vendors and tricycle drivers to undergo free swab testing offered by several local government units in Metro Manila.

This is for the mild and asymptomatic cases. If your infection worsens, you end up in a ventilator or intubated, and your hospital bill could run to at least P500,000. And there is always the possibility of the worst that can happen. Will you risk all that just to ease pandemic cabin fever? It’s simply not worth the trouble.

Plus people are now seeing European countries seeing a COVID surge and reimposing lockdowns. So yes, people will likely remain cautious as the economy increasingly reopens, with more public transport becoming available. It’s good news for health workers (and OCTA fellows), but bad news for certain economic sectors.

COVID-19
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