FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - November 28, 2020 - 12:00am

We always tend to think there are simple solutions to comprehensive problems. It is simply reassuring to do so.

When floods hit Cagayan Valley earlier this month, people blamed it on Magat Dam releasing water. That was a seductive theory. All we have to do is to improve dam management rather than think through difficult things like deforestation and climate change.

When several vaccine manufacturers released encouraging findings last week, we thought it was simply a matter of administering the dosages and then putting the pandemic behind us. It is not going to be that easy.

First we have to find the money to buy the vaccines. We are competing with the rest of humanity for our share of them.

If we choose vaccine varieties that require a super cold chain, we might not be ready to store and distribute the stuff. The cost of distribution could actually be larger than the cost of acquisition. The prospect of mass vaccination will surely challenge areas where our economy is weakest: the public health system and our inefficient logistics backbone.

When we do get stocks of the vaccine, we have a fairly clear idea of the order of priorities. Our healthcare workers, exposed daily to the infected, will be first in line. Our security forces, pressed into enforcing health protocols in the streets, will be next. Then follows the elderly, the people with co-morbidities and those who reside in hotspots.

In a word, one cannot simply go to a health facility and demand to be vaccinated – unless, of course, one is a duly elected senator. This is the way our world works.

At the moment, government is confident that it can afford to underwrite the costs of vaccination. The indigents, at least, will be vaccinated for free.

The most optimistic scenario is that we will get supplies of efficacious vaccines by the middle of next year. There is no truth to the rumor that next Christmas will be virus-free.

In the meantime, much of the public health restrictions in place will remain. There is good news on the testing front, however. Scientists have begun developing cheaper testing kits, including variants that may be self-administered. Saliva tests are now widely used. Soon our senators might be able to test themselves first thing every morning.

There could be breakthroughs in therapeutics, as well. They could dramatically bring down the death rate and shorten hospitalizations months down the road. Trust science to deliver – especially when profitability is ensured.

It is now possible to imagine we can soon pop some pills to address an infection, much like we now take an antibiotic dose to address a painful boil on our skin.

In some airports, canines are being trained to detect COVID-positive travelers. Artificial intelligence is being deployed in the effort to fight the pandemic, not only to track and trace but to actually identify infected persons. Lockdowns could soon become a thing of the past, a distant memory of how utterly unprepared the global health system was to meet the surge of a pandemic.

But things are not going to be easy or cheap.

While images of a massive, inclusive and effective vaccination program done in a matter of months may dance in our heads, this is not likely yet. The authorities are now telling us it could take between three to five years to vaccinate 60 million Filipinos. This means that even Christmas next year will still be haunted by health protocols.

Those students of the Ateneo calling for a student strike can march in the streets all they want, demanding some magical response from government against this curse of a pandemic. But the timetable announced by our vaccine czar is probably the best our systems, institutions and processes can deliver. The good Jesuits might do well to include in the education they provide a healthy dose of realism.

This pandemic is not about to evaporate overnight. It will require a long grind that will test us all.

And this is not just a health crisis that has already taken too much of a toll. The pandemic has deepened lines of inequality in societies. It has forced the diversion of resources from poverty alleviation to disease control. It has eradicated jobs that will never return. It has forced all of humanity to examine our vulnerabilities. It has forced all of us to reexamine our lives, separating the essential from the non-essential.

The experience scars us all. The ghost of this pandemic will haunt us long after this particular virus had been determined extinct.

We have not managed this pandemic spectacularly, to be sure. But we have not done too badly either. We rank about 14th in the world in terms of population and 27th in the number of infections. Certainly our coronavirus response has not been the sort of abject failure we see in many developed countries.

Most likely, our vaccination response will have the same middling characteristics. It will be slow and probably spotty. It will be the same difficult grind as our early stage response to infections. But it will be grounded on science rather than wishful thinking.

Our economic recovery, anchored on the protection of public health, will be slower than some rapidly rebounding countries but quicker than some of the rest. Some might be begrudge government for that – although this will be a fruitless exercise. We are heir to all our economy’s frailties.

The worse we could do, however, is to politicize both the health protocols and the vaccination program.

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