It’s here

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 25, 2021 - 12:00am

Viruses naturally mutate; it was only a matter of time, we were told, before the more infectious variant of the COVID virus, first detected in the United Kingdom, would reach the Philippines.

As of last Saturday, 17 cases of the mutant COVID virus had been detected in our country.

Health officials are putting on a brave face and saying the reported cases show the capability of the country to detect the variant. Health experts are holding off  on declaring a community transmission of the mutant virus, called B117, which is reported to be about 50 percent more infectious than the original COVID-causing SARS-CoV-2.

The situation is reminiscent of the time when we learned on Jan. 30 last year that we had COVID Patient No. 1 – a woman from China’s Wuhan City, origin of the virus, who arrived in the Philippines on Jan. 21 and so had ample time to spread the disease.

The Duterte administration, worried about offending Beijing, had refused to close our borders to travelers from China at that early stage. So we opened our arms to the Wuhan virus. Patient No. 1’s male companion, the Philippines’ Patient No. 2, became the first person outside China to die of COVID.

In no time, we had our first local case, reported at a prayer hall in the shopping hub of Greenhills in San Juan. The shopping complex, whose pearl center is a top tourist destination, was shut down for disinfection and has yet to fully recover.

A year later, despite the world’s longest continuous lockdowns, the COVID tsunami is still laying waste to our economy, and the death toll as of yesterday stood at 10,190, with 512,000 infections (468,000 recoveries).

Indelible lessons on managing infectious diseases should have been imparted by those first weeks of the pandemic in our country.

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I guess it’s the job of health officials to prevent panic over B117, which has prompted fresh lockdowns in several European countries and US states.

So far, there seems to be agreement that our economy can no longer withstand such widespread lockdowns. Instead, health experts and local executives are aiming for granular lockdowns in case there is a surge in cases of COVID, whether the original or the mutations.

Experts agree that while the B117 variant is more infectious than the original, it is not more virulent. Still, the death of renowned CNN talk show host Larry King, 87, days after his confinement for COVID, should remind us of the virulence of the original strain and its mutations, especially to the elderly and those with comorbidities like King, who had battled cancer.

The emergence of the B117 variant in the Philippines is prompting calls from certain quarters for the government to rethink its decision to allow children aged 10 to 14 to go out of their homes. It’s mainly an economic move; parents who can’t bring their children along to malls, restaurants and newly reopened travel destinations simply stay home, opting to shop and order food online.

But experts worry that children have less discipline in observing COVID health protocols while outside the home. They worry that 10-year-olds might infect the elderly living with them, which is a common arrangement in this country.

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Of the 17 cases of B117 reported in the country, 12 are in Bontoc, Mountain Province. Others are in the vegetable-growing region of La Trinidad, Benguet; possibly in Binangonan, Rizal, and in Calamba, Laguna. One case – an overseas worker who returned from Lebanon last Dec. 29 – was isolated in San Juan, Metro Manila, discharged on Jan. 9 and is probably now back in Jaro, Iloilo, the hometown that she indicated on the Philippine Airlines flight PR 8661 that she took.

In picturesque Bontoc town, two minors aged 5 and 10 are among the 12 cases. The DOH said one of the cases tested negative for the original COVID on Dec. 13. He went home to Bontoc the next day and had a family gathering plus a traditional faith-based ritual, and several of those who attended subsequently began manifesting symptoms.

People and even health protocol enforcers are becoming complacent. In Metro Manila and neighboring areas, it looks like distancing has now been tossed out the window in jeepneys. Is anyone even monitoring the situation? Are body temperatures still being taken before boarding?

Plastic dividers hanging from the jeepney ceiling are still in place, but they have been shortened in several units I have seen, to reach only down to an adult’s shoulder. I mention adult because I’ve also seen young children in jeepneys even in Metro Manila.

Maybe the plastic sheets were shortened because some people are concerned that with different passengers taking the jeepney, pathogens can also stick to ceiling-to-seat plastic sheets. So what’s the difference from physical contact with strangers in the jeepney?

*      *      *

It’s noteworthy though that OCTA Research fellows, who are warning against allowing 10-year-olds to roam the malls again, say COVID transmission in Metro Manila is “flat.”

Perhaps our seeming natural resistance to such viruses is finally starting to kick in. Remember that we were spared from the SARS and avian flu outbreaks in Asia. Maybe it’s our frequent exposure to the scorching tropical heat: health experts agree that high temperatures are bad for the COVID virus.

Before the pandemic, I asked Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, seriously, about speculation that Filipinos have a higher resistance to pathogens because we live in a polluted environment with poor hygiene.

He replied, seriously, that it could be possible for people to develop antibodies to pathogens that thrive in unhygienic environments. But there is no study to back this theory.

And until there is conclusive evidence that Pinoys have more resistance to pathogens, we will need to be extra careful with the arrival of a more infectious variant of a killer virus for which we still have no vaccine.

At this point, certain moves to further reopen the economy, as OCTA fellow Ranjit Rye noted, would be counterintuitive.

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