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

In this season, the biggest threats to public health are our own cherished traditions. Such is the nature of this horrible year.

Health authorities cannot warn us enough. We need to forego the usual things we do during this time of the year to avert a dangerous surge in infections. This means we should avoid family get-togethers and the boisterous Christmas parties that used to happen as a matter of course.

We all look forward to seeing our loved ones and our dear friends this season. But given the circumstances, carrying on as usual will be reckless behavior punishable by a wide range of ordinances.

Learn from what happened in the US. All the major surges in infections came in the wake of public holidays, the last one being Thanksgiving Day.

The other day, over 3,100 Americans died from COVID-19 in a single 24-hour period. This is just the beginning of the post-Thanksgiving Day surge experts have warned against. Despite those warnings, millions of Americans chose to defy the odds and traveled to be with their families on the day traditionally reserved for such gatherings. The sharp spike in hospitalizations attests to that.

In our case, the week from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve has traditionally been the time for families to get together, indulge in good food and long bouts of laughter. We will have to avoid all that this year.

There is no substitute for vigilance in the midst of a relentless pandemic. If we let down our guard, yield to what we traditionally do this time of the year, the penalties will be severe.

Surges become evident about two weeks after a holiday. In our case, we will either reap the fruits of our vigilance or the pains of our folly by mid-January. We will either continue with the long and slow descent in infections we worked hard to achieve or suffer the consequences of a major surge of the pandemic.

One consequence of a major surge in infections is the return to tighter restrictions. In turn, this will result in further damage to our economy, already badly scarred this year.

Our experience so far, in the ten months we have been battling the pandemic, shows we are a compliant and cooperative people. Mask wearing is nearly universal. Contrast this with the sporadic demonstrations in the US and Europe where some saw public health protocols a threat to their liberties.

The compliance and cooperation had been abetted by comprehensive protocols. One could not board a bus or enter a mall without wearing both mask and face shield. One could not drive off to a beach without observing the protocols required to do so.

The IATF has been relentless in carefully calibrating all the protocols for everything, from regulations for dining-in to prescribed bubbles for sports events. The retired military officers charged with managing this public health crisis ought to be given the credit they deserve for being so obsessive with these protocols. They are a major reason government’s handling of the emergency received sky-high approval ratings.

It is fortunate that our well developed protest industry, a networked skilled in mobilizing every grievance into a political force, had not managed to win any traction through the long and hard days of community quarantine. This is not for want of trying.

At the start of April, militants from a leftist urban poor stronghold in Quezon City attempted to march out to Edsa to protest lockdown restrictions. The police responded quickly and firmly, pushing the march back to the innards of the slum and arresting the most vociferous participants.

This was a decisive moment. Had this horde managed to stage their demonstration and block traffic along Edsa, the protest industry could have won a foothold against the necessary restrictions. The dark days of quarantine could have been marred by street fighting, aggravating all the pain our citizens had to endure.

The firm police response sent a clear message: no group will be allowed to mess with the state response to the pandemic. The best thing to do in the face of this severe public health emergency is to don a mask and comply with all the protocols.

After that decisive skirmish, the leftist groups were pushed to the margins. The Left was not going to dictate the public health agenda.

Obsessed as they were with high profile street actions, they could not indulge in that pointless activity in the busy avenues. They could only assemble in the idle streets of the UP campus and even then must don masks and observe social distancing.

Still, we face difficult days ahead. It is tough to ask a country obsessed with food and laughter to stay apart during the holidays.

We saw how crowds tightly massed at Divisoria. This was a perfect setting for super spreading the virus. Policemen armed with rattan batons had to be sent in to ensure proper social distancing.

The joyless human rights advocates tried to make an issue of policemen walking around with sticks. But then it turns out the stick was long part of the standard uniform and the mere sight of the batons caused clusters of people to instinctively spread out according to health protocols.

We will have to live with these health protocols for months, maybe years, ahead. The vaccines are coming by the second quarter. But they will require years to be administered widely.

In the meantime, every citizen must be a frontliner in building a culture of vigilance.

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