Holiday complacency

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 25, 2020 - 12:00am

With the anticipation of the arrival of a vaccine for coronavirus disease 2019, the government faces new challenges: managing expectations and preventing complacency.

Failure to do so could lead to a resurgence of COVID infections. Apart from causing more deaths and illnesses, a COVID resurgence could force a return to economically crippling lockdowns – as we are now seeing in parts of Europe, the United States and China. Even a two-week lockdown at the height of the Christmas season would be horrible news for many businesses.

The best-case scenario for the start of COVID vaccination in the Philippines is in late March 2021. That’s over four months away, during which the coronavirus will be as infectious, debilitating and potentially deadly as when it was brought here by the Philippines’ COVID Patient No. 1: a Chinese tourist from Wuhan, where the virus originated.

With the announcement of 95 and 94.5 percent effective vaccines that US firms Pfizer and Moderna are set to release for emergency use possibly by December, Philippine health officials have repeatedly reminded the public that until the vaccine is actually here, COVID risks remain, and people should continue to observe health protocols.

As mobility restrictions are gradually eased, however, there seems to be a growing impression that wearing face masks and shields and regular handwashing or disinfection with alcohol are enough to prevent COVID transmission, and physical distancing can be ignored.

This attitude has also been encouraged by the easing of distancing requirements in mass transportation. Partly because of this possible attitude change, Department of Health (DOH) officials and OCTA Research experts had opposed the easing of the distancing rule. They pointed out that if commuters could sit with only a small space between them in buses, jeepneys and trains for much longer than the 15 minutes that it takes (according to epidemiologists) for virus transmission, then it’s also OK to toss out the minimum one-meter distancing in other public places.

The OCTA members had in fact warned of crowding during the Christmas rush.

Divisoria, the country’s bargain center, has seen a daily surge of shoppers. The crowd is still nothing compared to the crush in pre-pandemic Christmases past, but it has been heavy enough to elicit more warnings from DOH officials about a possible spike in COVID infections.

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And it isn’t only in Divisoria. Last Sunday afternoon I visited the country’s Christmas village – the commercial area with the Dapitan Arcade in Quezon City at its heart.

There was a big crowd – nothing like the typical size of the crowd during the Christmas shopping rush in the past years, but the stallholders were clearly grateful for the robust foot traffic in the time of COVID.

It was heartening to see business picking up so close to Christmas. But it was also worrisome to be brushing past so many people – even if they were wearing face masks and shields, and trying to avoid physical contact with strangers.

In contrast, there was a sparse crowd at a mall that I visited on Monday, except in the supermarket and hardware store – two of the most pandemic-resilient businesses. A major clothing chain outlet is now closed for good, in what used to be the height of the shopping season.

In a sign of pandemic consumer preferences, the mall now has several stalls dedicated to plants. The items are reasonably priced, too; maybe they will force the competition outside the malls to lower their jaw-dropping prices. I’ve just seen a potted dwarf tamarind in a gardening store with a price tag of P12,500 – the same size as the one that’s now fruiting in my garden, which I bought for just P250 when it was only slightly smaller three years ago.

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It’s intriguing that while mall foot traffic remains low even during the peak holiday shopping season, the outdoor commercial areas are packed.

I can only guess that this is due to COVID-related avoidance of enclosed public places. This is also why restaurants with al fresco options are recovering faster than those that can’t operate without airconditioning.

The requirement to fill out contact tracing forms in malls or their tenant stores adds to the inconvenience (and those pens for common use are virus transmitters). You don’t need to fill out such forms in Dapitan or Divisoria. Really, how useful are these forms? If an establishment has an infected employee, will it actually alert its customers?

Apart from crowding in outdoor commercial centers, health experts are worried about increasing church attendance. Physical distancing is strictly observed inside churches, but devotees stand outside. And in the case of Quiapo Church, home of the Black Nazarene, the size of the crowd outside at all hours of the day and well until midnight makes physical distancing a serious challenge.

If people can ignore physical distancing during Christmas shopping and religious observance, admonitions against large family gatherings for the holidays may also be ignored.

Yesterday, worried DOH officials said they were bracing for a post-Christmas COVID surge.

The World Health Organization, for its part, is worried about family gatherings for both Christmas and, in the US, Thanksgiving. There is no “zero risk” for COVID, the WHO warned this week as it reminded the world that avoiding Christmas family gatherings is “the safest bet.”

“Even if you can’t celebrate together this year, you can find ways to celebrate when this is all over,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID technical lead, said Monday.

The holidays can’t be joyous if there is illness or, heaven forbid, death in the household.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime holiday sacrifice; it can be memorable and we can do it. For 2020, a healthy Christmas is a merry Christmas.

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