FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

The provincial government of Sulu made a desperate appeal for the national government to deploy the Navy and seal the border with Sabah. This happened after it was confirmed the more highly contagious variant of the coronavirus had found its way to the insular Malaysian state from the UK.

Given our long history of failing to seal that border to protect us from terrorists, smugglers and pirates, the Sulu government’s request will probably be futile even if granted. If we cannot seal that border against common bandits, we cannot possibly seal it against a virus.

The variant first found in the UK has sparked what amounts to a panic reaction among numerous countries. The EU briefly closed their borders to travelers from the UK. Notwithstanding, the variant has been detected in several continental European countries, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Japan and South Korea. In all cases, the variant of the deadly virus was found to have traveled with those coming from the UK.

The panic seems unwarranted. Virologists tell us the Sars-2 virus first detected in Wuhan has produced over 12,000 variants over the past year. There might be differences in transmissibility but none of the variants found so far are immune to the vaccines now available for millions. None have been determined to be more lethal than the original version.

Viruses, we now know, have a fantastic ability to mutate. The bad news is that there has been no finding that the various variants of this virus lead to weakening the strain or reducing its transmissibility.

President Duterte appears to have been particularly spooked by the British variant of the virus.

He cut short his holiday and convened an emergency meeting of the IATF to discuss the threat. A ban on travel from the UK imposed earlier was extended for another two weeks. His earlier order to start in-person classes in the safer areas was promptly revoked.

In his excitement over the possibility of the British variant entering the country, President Duterte demanded the US deliver us 20 million doses of vaccines if they want to avert cancellation of the Visiting Forces Agreement. That sounded like blackmail. It ill advisedly conflates geopolitics with the common task of fighting a pandemic.

The same odd excitement led the President to declare that lockdowns could again be resorted to should there be community spread of the highly transmissible variant. There was no need to make such a declaration. It is understood that all options are always open to government at all times should infections run rampant. There was really no need to fuel panic.

The President, likely inadvertently, also disclosed members of the armed forces have been administered a version of the vaccine developed in China. This is odd. Our FDA has not yet authorized a vaccine for emergency use. Therefore, whatever vaccine is being administered to our soldiers is unauthorized.

On top of all these, the President ordered the formation of yet another task force specifically to guard against the possible entry of the British variant. The task force will include the Philippine Genome Institute that might not have the laboratory capacity to catalogue all the positive tests.

Duterte’s health secretary consistently gets himself into needless trouble by the unwarranted utterances he makes – such as when he prematurely declared we have flattened the curve. During the meeting with the President, his health secretary muttered something unintelligible: proposing border controls be resorted to only if it is established there is community spread of the British variant. He has a propensity for saying the right things the wrong way.

If there is already community spread, closing the borders becomes irrelevant. Other countries will do us the favor of closing their borders to us.

And what about the 11,999 other variants of the original virus the World Health Organization has documented?

If we react to these other variants in the same hyperventilating way we are now reacting to the British variant, we will be in danger of losing all sense of proportion.

We can always go the way of blissful ignorance Americans exemplify. Coping with the monumental surge in infections, US health authorities are not bothering to examine the fine distinctions in genetic code of the virus now killing Americans by the thousands by the day. This is why they do not know if the British variant is now infecting their communities.

Sealing borders is the easiest for governments to do. Controlling ingress and egress is the final act of state against which there is no appeal.

Because it is so easy to do, governments resort to closing borders when they lack the medical infrastructure or the isolation facilities to prevent infections. But that is a heavy-handed measure that probably does more damage to the economy than controls epidemics. It is a blunt instrument. It is like bringing in heavy artillery to exterminate mice.

When France suddenly closed its borders with Britain before Christmas, it stranded thousands of lorries and their drivers at the border. The French demanded the drivers be tested before they are allowed through. There were no facilities for doing that. The abrupt closure simply produced a logjam at the borders and disruptions in the supply chains.

In the end the British variant of the virus found other ways to enter France anyway. The closure merely produced chaos at the border control points and empty supermarket shelves on both sides of the channel.

Considering this, our health secretary might have meant exhausting all medical protocols such as obligatory quarantining before imposing border shutdowns.

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