FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - December 15, 2020 - 12:00am

It is nearly certain there will be an uptick in COVID-19 infections in January. The only question is how much of a surge there will be.

The Octa research group, an independent initiative of policy experts and scientists monitoring the numbers relating to the pandemic, noted a slight uptick. The reproduction number for Quezon City is now .99. The number for the City of Manila is .97.

What this means, basically, is that every new case is expected to have infected another one. We have to push the reproduction rate way below 1 to get to the other side of the curve.

The reproduction rate is the real dynamic of the pandemic we are all fighting. It is more important than the daily reports of new cases and deaths put out by the DOH. Those numbers have been on a slow decline the past few weeks. The usual holiday get-togethers could alter that dynamic next month.

Last week, fake news circulated about a looming lockdown for the Christmas and New Year holidays. The velocity with which this piece of fake news circulated indicates the lockdown is taken as well within the realm of possibility. Just as well it should. The near certainty of an uptick in infections deserves adjustment in protocols in the last two weeks of this horrible year.

Although vaccines are now available, our ability to contain the spread of this deadly virus will rest on the enforcement of public health protocols through all of 2021. We will need at least two years (maybe five) to vaccinate enough people to achieve some sort of herd immunity.

Unless the vaccine becomes available in the form of a skin patch or a capsule, the logistical requirements of vaccinating enough of our 107 million people are simply too large for our existing capacity. The continuing infections will continue to test the capacity of our weak public health system. Those are simply the facts we have to work with.

Eventually, we will have to rebuild a new economy to coexist with the virus for the time being. That will be another test of our weak capacity.

In Germany, a spike in infections will likely force the government to impose lockdown measures from this week into the first weeks of January. Several other European countries are likely to follow suit.

In the US, where the Trump administration abdicated on its responsibilities, the horrible tally of infections and deaths will likely rise in the coming days even if vaccines are now being administered. The experts say that the effects of vaccination will only be evident in the late spring or summer of next year.

In our case, although the numbers remain manageable, there should be some room for the authorities to consider stricter protocols for the holidays. The risks need to be managed.


A recent international survey of about 58 countries showed our primary school students to be the poorest in math and science. This is a systemic barrier to achieving the human capital required to have a competitive economy.

The horror stories we have been hearing about the teaching materials being distributed in our schools attest to the anemic state of our education. Add to this the failure to build new classrooms and recruit new teachers the past few years.

Today, there are 34,000 vacant teaching positions open at the DepEd. It appears we do not have the trained talent required to fill them. The educational system has failed to deliver the skilled people it requires to reproduce itself. Yet we do not seem to treat this with any urgency.

Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, one of the brightest minds in the legislative branch, recently released a report that projects a post-pandemic skills and employment gap of 2.4 skilled jobs. The report was released to impress lawmakers about the need to move more quickly in implementing reforms in training and education to meet the needs of new and emerging businesses.

While we have a high, pandemic-induced unemployment rate, many businesses could not find the skilled workers they need. I consult for a steel company that has sent out foraging missions to the Middle East to attract Filipino workers to come back home and apply their talents here.

We need a comprehensive study of what our educational system delivers and what the actual economy really needs. There is a serious mismatch here that almost ensures that many graduates will remain unemployed for a long time unless they retool on their own. Our schools should redirect resources to help in that retooling.

Salceda describes this mismatch as a “silent crisis.” For instance, our business processing outsourcing companies could not expand as fast as they could because of the shortage in skilled manpower. Because of that we are giving away opportunities to our competitors such as India, Pakistan and Vietnam. Those opportunities will never return.

If we do not act fast, our educational system will be producing graduates nobody needs. It will be creating a swamp of unemployable people and an economy debilitated by shortage of skills. There is no surer guarantee of poverty.

I can almost see the leftist groups protesting such educational reforms, depicting these as some form of “commercialization.” They always find the most perverted view of what the country really needs to do.

When Deng Xiaoping embarked on the modernization of his enormous country, he said he did not care about the color of the cat as long as it caught mice. He understood an ample supply of engineers was what China needed.

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