Tiers for fears

FROM A DISTANCE (The Philippine Star) - November 28, 2020 - 12:00am

In the latest developments of the 21st century plague diary, Londoners found out the government has placed us in “Tier Two” of its master plan to manage the coronavirus outbreak. There are three tiers in the government ranking of restrictions, with Tier One at medium alert, Tier Two at high alert and Tier 3: very high alert. A meme doing the rounds here explains: “Tier One: Pints, Tier Two: Pints with Chips, Tier Three: No Pints.” Who says pub culture is dead?

The news has been received by howls of protest around the country, including from the ruling Conservative or Tory party’s own members of parliament. 99 percent of people in England have been designated in the two strictest tiers. The country’s been subjected to a second lockdown since the beginning of November, the tier system is supposed to be a way of calibrating the response to local data. It means that in London, for example, there should be no mixing of households indoors, apart from “support bubbles” and a maximum of six outdoors. In Manchester, where the strictest measures will be in place, there should be no mixing of households indoors, or most outdoor places, apart from support bubbles, with a maximum of six in some outdoor spaces (eg parks, sports courts, public gardens).

The announced restrictions are not actually that bad when considered in the global context, in my view. It was striking that on the same day, Australia’s Victoria state announced that there hadn’t been a single COVID-19 case in 28 days. Friends from Melbourne were posting pictures of their hard-won ventures outside their homes. The fact is that in England, schools were never closed in Lockdown 2.0, and that even under Tier 3 gyms, retail and personal care businesses will remain open. Under Tier 2, accommodation businesses can open. Arsenal FC will be the first English Premier League club to open its stadium doors to fans in many long months for a Europa League match though limited to 50 percent capacity or 2,000 spectators, whichever is lower. The government has been trying to reach a balance between economic activity and activity likely to spread the virus to an extent that will overburden the healthcare system.

Of course there’s no doubt that it will all be incredibly hard for people, especially given the long cold winter nights, the expectation for people to moderate their holiday celebrations and the frightening jobless and economic numbers. In some areas, communities have effectively been under lockdown since March but government scientists are still warning that there is little prospect of any real changes, possibly for months to come. Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s  chief scientific adviser, and Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, have become household names, with their regular briefings. On announcing the new tier designations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized for the heartache and frustration caused, especially over the holiday season when people had been hoping to see their families. “Hugging elderly relatives is not something to go out and do,” Vallance said. “If you want them to survive to be hugged again,” added Whitty.

They’re working off the recent data which show that 16,341 people are in hospital because of the coronavirus, which is the highest since May. Some of the second wave numbers can be attributed to much wider testing across the country. However, the real number of cases will still be higher than the recorded count, it’s just that testing is picking up a greater share of the total number. The important thing for the scientists and public health policy makers is the shape of the hospitalization and death graphs curves. They have steeply climbed and are at a new peak. The problem is that in some localized areas, people feel they are being placed under tighter restrictions than they were before this second  lockdown; they think it’s unfair and some MPs are warning the measures are authoritarian and risk losing public confidence. They even say they’ll vote “No” when the measures come to a vote next week.

Here’s another way to put the numbers into context from the World Health Organization. In the UK, from Jan. 3 to 26 Nov. 26, there have been 1,557,011 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 56,533 deaths.

In Philippines, over the same period, there have been 422,915 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 8,215 deaths. The numbers seem to have peaked a couple of months ago in the Philippines, and didn’t reach the heights of the UK.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on every aspect of human activity. Participating in the SEA of Solutions 2020 event to reduce plastic pollution in seas and oceans, I heard how the perceived health and safety advantages of single-use plastic has led to an astronomical rise in its use. It turns out that there is scientific evidence that reusable models are also capable of providing the same level of hygiene as single-use plastics. There was a strong presence from the Philippines at the conference, from scientists to the celebrity Antoinette Taus (founder of Communities Organized for Resource Allocation or CORA), sharing experiences and partnering up to clean the planet. It’s a fascinating group because corporate giants like Unilever and Coca-Cola are in the same room as government ministers and civil society leaders speaking the same language, as it were. The question before them for this second meeting (the first took place before the  pandemic) was whether the needle had moved at all on marine plastic pollution.

One of the findings was that we need industry innovation, consumer awareness and meaningful hygiene measures. But it was also reported that the coronavirus is also an opportunity to reset, to build partnerships with private sector, governments and civil society, using digital technologies and people-centered solutions, and to  leverage public and private investments to build back better and bluer.

The pandemic is a huge setback for the entire planet, but we have to keep going. What’s happening is a fundamental questioning of what we’re doing and why.

This will pass. In England we’re told the designations will be reviewed every two weeks. “Your tier is not your destiny, every area has the means of escape,” Johnson declared. A radio announcer here asked listeners to write in with their questions about the new designations through emails with the subject line “Tier Question” – but they said you could spell “tier” however you like.

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