Silver linings

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 1, 2021 - 12:00am

There’s a popular way of bidding goodbye to the year just past: good riddance.

And what a horrible year it has been. It opened with Taal Volcano exploding, displacing thousands and blowing hot ash all the way to Metro Manila and Bulacan. Flights were canceled and tourism in Batangas and Tagaytay was hammered.

Sadly, we all know that the worst was yet to come.

What follows has been a long string of bad news, except for a handful of sectors such as pharmaceuticals and virgin coconut oil producers.

In our country, the final days of the year were marked by controversy over the vaccination as early as September of members of President Duterte’s close-in security, with what he himself disclosed is the vaccine developed by Sinopharm, the pharmaceutical company owned by the Chinese government.

Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante III, commander of the Presidential Security Group, has since been busy saving his commander-in-chief from foot-in-mouth disease. The PSG chief obviously sees something irregular in this vaccination, since he’s lying through his teeth and refusing to say where the vaccine came from and even which vaccine it is.

Let’s hope 2021 will see members of the military remembering that their sworn duty is not to any particular individual or official – even the highest in the land – but to the Filipino people. It’s written in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution: “The Armed Forces of the Philippines is the protector of the people and the State.”

Lying (and believing that Filipinos will buy it) is a betrayal of the soldier’s sacred oath.

*      *      *

The pandemic quarantines did not put an end to scandals – the “pastillas” scheme, the PhilHealth mess – and political battles. There was an ugly leadership change in the House of Representatives, giving rise to the joke: that’s no gentleman, he’s a congressman.

In a development reminiscent of martial law, ABS-CBN, the country’s largest network, was shut down, as promised by Duterte, and because it refused to run the praise releases of (again) congressmen.

The quarantines also did not put an end to killings by police – of drug suspects, of a retired soldier at a COVID checkpoint, of a mother and son after she sang, “I don’t care, eh eh eh eh eh…”

It was a year marked by an intensified crackdown on communist rebels and their sympathizers including their “legal fronts” in politics and civil society. In the past months several persons described by the government as New People’s Army members were killed. Before the year was over, bank accounts traced to the Communist Party of the Philippines-NPA were frozen by the Anti-Money Laundering Council. With no Christmas truce for the first time in years, police launched simultaneous operations on Dec. 30 against communist rebels and sympathizers in Capiz and Iloilo, killing at least nine people.

Relatives of those killed said the fatalities were not communists but members of indigenous peoples’ groups, and denied that they fought it out with government forces. The raiders’ response: So sue us.

*      *      *

The guns were not silent, but the firecrackers were. For New Year’s Eve I expected deafening silence, for the first time ever. Without the noise to drive evil spirits away, did they manage to enter our homes?

But we have other New Year traditions. And if we can no longer enjoy fireworks or celebrate in large groups, no one can take away our tradition of greeting the new year with hope for better days ahead.

Scrounging for positive developments in this year of crisis is a challenge. The best that can be done is to look for silver linings.

The dogs surely didn’t miss the deafening noise and suffocating smog on New Year’s Eve. Also, wildlife must be enjoying a reprieve worldwide from adventurous eaters, with the COVID virus suspected to have come from bats and the previous one, SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, from civets.

A most welcome event is the development of a COVID vaccine in record time, using the groundbreaking messenger RNA technology for mass production at unprecedented speed. One of the most popular animated New Year greetings shared yesterday was the one where the coronavirus at the end of 2020 was kicked out by the number one, shaped like a hypodermic syringe, representing the vaccine, to form 2021.

This raises hopes that the same mRNA technology may be used to develop vaccines for other viral afflictions such as SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, dengue, and perhaps even for animal diseases such as African swine fever.

*      *      *

Another achievement is the development of a less invasive, faster, still accurate but cheaper COVID test that requires no laboratory processing – the saliva test – which may also be applied for other coronaviruses.

Unfortunately for the travel and tourism sector, which will be among the biggest beneficiaries of this product, it looks like our regulators will approve the saliva test only when the pandemic is over and all the swab tests have been used up. Even before the approval is given, it has already been overtaken by the Ellume over-the-counter, self-administered COVID diagnostic test for home use, which was approved for emergency use in mid-December by the US FDA.

Among our fervent hopes in the coming year is for a more efficient drug regulation, and less disorganization in the government COVID response. The pandemic is bad enough; botching the response – and, if the worst suspicions are correct, making money out of it – will be catastrophic.

Christmas 2021 will have to be far better than this one just past, and we should have reason to celebrate New Year 2022.

After bidding 2020 good riddance, we hope for recovery in the next 12 months.

May you have a much better year!

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