FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - October 22, 2020 - 12:00am

Who could have thought this would happen in our lifetime: Christmas parties are now officially banned by the IATF.

That is not the only shock. Cemeteries are ordered closed nationwide on All Saint’s Day. This is the day we all set aside to honor our dead. Halloween parties are outlawed.

It is also unlikely that churches will be allowed full capacity through the holiday.

We are looking forward to a very different holiday season. It is unlike any we have seen before. Families that have been apart since community quarantines were enforced last March cannot come together this Christmas – except virtually.

The wonder of it all, however, is that all the restrictions imposed have been accepted with understanding. We haven’t had those stupid anti-mask demonstrations we see so frequently in the US. The surveys tell us the population overwhelmingly approves of the actions government has taken to meet this unprecedented public health crisis.

Instead of demonstrations against the public health protocols, what we saw are demands for continuing with the precautions. In early August, the medical community demanded Metro-Manila be returned to MECQ restrictions. Government granted that demand. Because of that, the finance secretary says the end-year recession will probably be a couple of points more severe.

Most people, the surveys show, have been largely compliant with the restrictions imposed. A large majority complies with the mask requirement. A lot comply with the face shield requirement, tenuous as the scientific justification for this might be. Most, under the pain of heavy fines, complied with that truly unwarranted passenger shield earlier required for motorcycle riders. The authorities, it seems, have now quietly set aside this atrocious imposition.

By most indications, we are making some progress in the battle against COVID-19.

We are no longer leading the ASEAN countries in the number of recorded daily infections. Indonesia, which has consistently led in number of deaths, now reports more cases than we do. This is hardly consolation. Our sprawling neighbor has nearly thrice our population.

The other day, the number of new cases detected fell below 2,000 for the first time in a while. But this could be explained by the fact that the Philippine Red Cross has been doing less tests due to the delay in its reimbursement from PhilHealth.

Two months ago, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III drew much (deserved) criticism for prematurely proclaiming we had flattened the curve. We had not, at that time. Perhaps today the good secretary can justifiably make that claim. We have hit a plateau, albeit at a very high level.

New COVID-19 cases in Metro Manila fell below a thousand per day – although the caveat has to be made that less testing is being done. We deserve to celebrate only if more tests are conducted and less infections reported.

Our positivity rate is under 10 percent. The World Health Organization, however, sets the acceptable positivity rate at 5 percent. Much work still needs to be done.

A vaccine might be widely available by the second half of next year – if we can afford to procure it at meaningful quantities. That means we have to continue with the mitigation measures for many more months.

Everyone is sick and tired of the mitigation measures. But we all agree with the necessity for them.

In a few days, a decision point will again be reached on the mitigation levels to be maintained. Business groups are pressing for greater relaxation to help the economy regain its former robustness. Local officials, for their part, are pressing for a continuation of GCQ for the Metro Manila area until the end of the year.

That will be a tough decision to make. We have not gathered enough data to convincingly point us in one direction or the other.

The DOH data, we have pointed out before, lacks specificity about where cases break out and why. What is gathered is simply locational data: the jurisdiction where cases happen.

We do not have enough information, for instance, to make a decision about in-person classes in elementary schools. It is students at the primary grades that suffer most from the disruptions caused by mitigation measures. They not only lack the gadgets needed for “blended” learning; they miss the socialization that going to school brings.

We do not have enough information to justify the imposition of curfews. Very few people move around during the wee hours anyway and there seems no reason for the curfews except to shut down restaurants and bars where infections tend to spread. We can shut down these establishments at an earlier time without resorting to curfews.

There is really no solid science, apart from the metric system, underpinning the distancing rules on public transport. Recall that exasperating debate a few weeks ago about whether to maintain distancing at one meter or three-quarters of it in transport vehicles.

The passenger load of our mass transport systems was relaxed a bit a few days ago. That makes it easier for more people to get to work. But everywhere else in the world, no restrictions are imposed on mass transport provided passengers don masks.

We expect all the pandemic-related numbers to decline – albeit slowly – over the coming weeks. Unless an outbreak of major proportion happens, we should relax mitigation measures for our economy to breathe.

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