Super spreaders

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 2, 2020 - 12:00am

It will probably be a happy Christmas for the mother of Father Nicanor Austriaco of the OCTA Research team: she is expecting the COVID vaccine to arrive next month… but this is in the United States.

“In my home state of Rhode Island, we are expecting the vaccine to arrive in two weeks,” Father Nic told us Monday night on OneNews’ “The Chiefs.”

Father Nic, a US-based microbiologist and theologist who is a visiting professor at the University of Sto. Tomas in Manila, can’t stress enough that in the Philippines, the vaccine can be available only in the second quarter of 2021 at the earliest, considering the required logistics and regulatory hurdles.

Still, you can imagine the impact of images from the US and countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany, which are home to the pharmaceutical companies that have produced COVID vaccines, once their mass immunization gets underway.

Into the ninth month of quarantines, and with Christmas approaching, Filipinos will hang on to the impression that the vaccine is just around the corner.

Combine this impression with the easing of domestic and international travel restrictions as well as distancing in public transportation, and you can understand why it seems as if the pandemic is over in places such as Divisoria, where it’s looking more and more like a pre-COVID Christmas.

OCTA is worried that Christmas gatherings – in commercial areas, and for family and friendly get-togethers – will turn into COVID super spreader events. Even the Department of Health is preparing for a post-holiday COVID surge.

Health experts worldwide are warning about the risk of transmission during holiday family gatherings. By most accounts, the Americans tempered their Thanksgiving get-togethers last weekend. Can Christians temper Christmas celebrations?

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“It’s possible to balance lives and livelihood,” University of the Philippines professor Ranjit Rye of OCTA told us.

Another member of the group, UP math professor Guido David, said they expect cases to rise after the holidays, and are hoping the increase won’t be an unmanageable surge.

Crowd management was implemented in public markets throughout the enhanced community quarantine. It can still be done now, even with more people allowed outside their homes and more businesses reopening.

The most crowded places are the shopping areas – mainly those outdoors, since people are shunning air-conditioned buildings. There are only a handful of public markets even in the big cities of Metro Manila. Barangay officials should be tasked to work together with the police to enforce distancing. Ropes and other dividers can be used to regulate foot traffic.

Despite financial woes, Filipinos are shopping for the holidays. With the increase in shoppers this Christmas season, vacant lots can be rented by local government units to decongest the regular commercial centers. Flea markets can be set up on these lots, allowing people to earn a living.

Where hawker space is limited, perhaps groups of vendors can be allowed on different days, or at certain hours, just to give more people a chance to earn a living while managing crowds.

While we’re worried about COVID transmission and aghast at the sight of crowds ignoring physical distancing in public markets, it was also deeply distressing to see vendors the other day in Taytay, Rizal, carefully folding their tarpaulins as they wept and wailed that they would have nothing to eat.

The Taytay government had dismantled the makeshift stalls because physical distancing had been tossed out the window and even mask wearing was increasingly being ignored. Each local government unit (LGU) can devise a system that would compel distancing and compliance with other basic health protocols in public places.

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A bigger challenge as the holidays approach is eschewing or minimizing Christmas get-togethers. Health experts have pointed out that mask wearing and distancing are commonly ignored in the presence of family members. And there have been many coronavirus transmissions attributed to such situations.

In our family, it has been an unprecedented year without gatherings for birthdays and other events calling for celebration. Food for special occasions is prepared and consumed only within the household. Relatives just pick up the handa from each other’s homes, with distancing observed.

There are, of course, many neighborhoods especially in Metro Manila where people live cheek by jowl with the neighbors, so Christmas gatherings will be inevitable. Barangay personnel should be tasked to prevent the gatherings from becoming mañanita-sized. In some areas, however, the barangay officials themselves may be the hosts of the super spreader celebrations.

Maybe LGUs can encourage vigilance among barangay officials by dangling rewards for those whose areas register a slowdown in COVID transmission during the holidays.

As for New Year’s Eve celebrations, dirges must be playing within the fireworks industry in Bulacan this holiday season. If we still want a local fireworks industry, which employs thousands of workers, the sector needs a serious infusion of emergency aid.

Common or community fireworks areas are out of the question this coming New Year’s Eve. Perhaps the international fireworks show in Manila Bay can still push through, just to bring some holiday cheer and provide a ventilator for the industry.

Except for a few sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry and virgin coconut oil producers, we’re ending this horrid year (as T.S. Eliot put it) not with a bang but a whimper.

We’re now “dancing” with the coronavirus. Dancing means being mindful that COVID is very much around – still as virulent, and still as deadly.

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