COVID in 2021

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

You can thank pollster Pulse Asia for kicking off 2021 with a reminder to everyone that the 2022 general elections will loom large this year, affecting policy and decision making, alliances and career moves.

Still, national attention will remain focused on the coronavirus disease 2019. After 10 months of crippling lockdowns, patience is wearing thin over inefficiency, VIP entitlements and suspected corruption in the COVID-19 response.

The prospect of another year of pandemic restrictions is made less bearable as Filipinos see vaccines approved by US and UK regulators now being rolled out in at least 50 countries. Adding to the impatience is that among the first recipients in those countries are Filipino frontliners, who post their vaccination experience on social media.

These days a common question among people chatting online with relatives and friends overseas is, “Have you had your shot?”

If the answer is yes, the next question, of course, is, “What about you?” For us in the Philippines, the frustrated answer is, we’ll get the vaccine in July at the earliest… maybe. For most of the population, a more realistic timeline is before Christmas 2021. Unless you’re a member of the Presidential Security Group.

PSG members self-administered (they claim) their vaccines. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was kept in the dark about this milestone in the pandemic response, belatedly learned that the vaccination happened back in September.

How many doses of the 25 million Sinopharm vaccines promised by Beijing were already in the Philippines at the time? (President Duterte himself said it was the vaccine made by Sinopharm, the pharmaceutical company owned by the Chinese government.) Was Beijing’s vaccine commitment the reason why Malacañang and the Department of Health sat on the deal with Pfizer that was secured in July by the Department of Foreign Affairs with the help of the US State Department?

Beijing seems to figure prominently in our COVID response. At the start of the pandemic, when Taiwan had quickly closed its borders to travelers from China, the Duterte administration didn’t want to offend Beijing so we continued to welcome travelers even from the COVID epicenter, Wuhan. Our first two patients were from that city, with one of them later dying of the coronavirus – the first fatality outside China.

Now even our contract tracing app, which collects personal information from users, has Chinese links. The QR app, which requires a smartphone, is now a requirement for entering certain public areas, with no option for manual contact tracing forms. Woe to the poor Pinoys without proper phones.

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With COVID continuing to dominate 2021, the administration’s response will be the stuff of congressional inquiries. Despite distancing restrictions, we can expect a lot of these probes with the approach of the elections and the need to promote name recall.

Politicians know enough the perils of peaking too early in election races in this country. The early frontrunners tend to get hit with everything including the kitchen sink by their rivals.

It’s intriguing that officials of the two main agencies that represent the health sector in the government’s COVID response – the Department of Health and Food and Drug Administration – are speaking out publicly against the PSG vaccination. Have they been sidelined all along by the military and police generals?

Like most other countries, our government – and the people – groped for measures to prevent COVID transmission. There’s debate on the usefulness of the lockdowns, but the calibrated economic reopening, the emphasis on health protocols such as distancing, wearing of mask (and why not, the face shield) and regular handwashing, the social amelioration program and increased capacities for testing and treatment were positive responses.

However, the approach to the one thing that can put an end to this scourge – the vaccine – is frustratingly incoherent.

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Some quarters (and not just the opposition) are seeing an omen in the selection of the 2021 Colors of the Year by the Pantone Color Institute, the leading color authority in the design world. Pantone’s choices, pondered over nine months, dominate the color of consumer products from paint to bedding to furniture and apparel.

Pantone, which has been picking a Color of the Year since 2000, says its choice is “a color snapshot of what we see taking place in our global culture that serves as an expression of a mood and an attitude.”

It’s no idle activity. In 2015, when Pantone picked the red-brown Marsala as the Color of the Year, sales of products with that color reportedly went through the roof.

For 2021, Pantone announced last month that the hottest Colors of the Year are Ultimate Gray and Illuminating. You know what gray and its permutations are. As described by Pantone, Ultimate Gray, like pebbles, is emblematic of “solid and dependable elements which are everlasting and provide a firm foundation.”

But “Illuminating”?

That’s yellow for you. As described by Pantone, it’s “a bright and cheerful yellow sparkling with vivacity, a warming yellow shade imbued with solar power.”

That must have been the yellow in the body-hugging outfit worn by a local TV anchor on New Year’s Day. I’ve also seen yellow and gray outfits in several department stores during the holidays.

Those who have gleefully announced the burial of the “yellows” in Philippine society might write a letter of protest to Pantone.

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Color-coding people based on their positions in politics and social issues can be a slippery slope in this country, where political alliances and loyalties are tenuous and even core beliefs tend to change usually with age and family responsibilities.

There are many Duterte critics who are not sympathizers of the traditional “yellow” opposition identified with the Aquino clan, and who are unimpressed with communist and leftist ideas.

I know several persons who in their youth were members or staunch sympathizers of the communist rebel movement, and who are now unabashed capitalists.

Also, several of Cory Aquino’s officials – the original “yellows” – are now members of the Duterte Cabinet or are among the President’s political allies in Congress.

And from my brief coverage of the final months of the Marcos dictatorship, I learned that someone who was fond of the color yellow, before it became the symbol of the anti-Marcos movement, was Imelda Marcos herself. The “yellows” failed to stop Imeldific from often wearing eye-popping giant champagne pearl stud earrings and necklaces.

So color-coded political or ideological affiliations, real or imagined, won’t dominate the narrative in this pre-election year. What will dominate will still be COVID, the response and the manner of recovery from the pandemic.

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