Getting on the ‘new normal’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - February 3, 2021 - 12:00am

As far as the Department of Health (DOH) is concerned, the 29-year-old Filipino male who became the country’s index case for the United Kingdom (UK) variant of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is “case closed.” DOH Undersecretary Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire announced this last Monday. The index case had traveled to Dubai with his girlfriend on Dec. 22 last year and tested positive for the COVID-19 and the UK variant when screened upon arrival in the Philippines last Jan. 7.

Of the 410 close contacts, 71 tested positive for COVID-19 infection; 197 yielded negative results and the rest are either yet to undergo testing or results still not released. Vergeire reported all the 410 individuals who made close contacts with the index case have already been traced, tested, put in quarantine, treated, and monitored after the isolation period.

The emergence of the UK variant was the culprit behind the push back in the scheduled gradual relaxation of quarantine rules in our country in particular. This is one year after local transmissions of the COVID-19 contagion first broke out in the Philippines when President Rodrigo Duterte first imposed the hard lockdown and banned the face-to-face classes all over the country until anti-COVID vaccines are developed.

After building the capacity to contain the spread of the pandemic, the IATF later on adopted “granular’ quarantine guidelines, or limiting the stringent restrictions in specific areas that will have surge of COVID cases. The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID – the policy-making body of the government’s COVID pandemic responses – was already in fact, on the verge of recommending to President Duterte the phased reduction of quarantine restrictions before the COVID-19 mutation erupted.

The pilot-testing of the resumption of the face-to-face classes in selected schools across the country was approved by President Duterte in December. This would have started last month. However, the President decided to abort it when the more transmissible UK variant reportedly affects children.

Then last Jan. 22, the IATF endorsed to lift the stay-at-home restrictions to 10-year old to 65-year old age in areas placed under modified general community quarantine (MGCQ) as recommended by the President’s economic team. But for the same reasons, the Chief Executive reversed the IATF and reiterated his policy it would only resume once the government’s vaccination program rolls out by the first quarter of this year at the earliest.

In his “address to the people” at the end of his weekly IATF meeting at Malacanang last Monday night, President Duterte appeared disturbed over the grim reports submitted by his economic managers on the dire consequences of anti-COVID measures taken by the government in controlling the spread of the pandemic in our country. “So we are sinking deeper and deeper, but not just us. It’s every one,” he groaned.

The President mentioned in particular the assessment of his most senior economic adviser Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez. Citing the report of Dominguez, the President rued as much as P2 billion every day in wages, salaries, earnings and other income of Filipinos all over the country were lost due to the pandemic restrictions. “But we are trying our best to keep us afloat,” the President reassured the Filipinos.

Earlier that day on Monday’s virtual news briefing at Malacanang, acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Chua admitted the Philippines is losing P700 million in wages and other income each day that Metro Manila and other regions remain on GCQ. Both Chua, Dominguez and the rest of the Duterte economic managers are also members of the IATF.

Upon IATF recommendations, the national capital region (Metro Manila); the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR); and six other areas were maintained under GCQ for the whole of February. Fortunately, this month has only 28 days. While keeping these areas under GCQ was correct, Chua reiterated his strong belief the country is capable to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic without further choking the economic activities.

As far as the Philippines is concerned, Chua sees a lot of good signals showing our economy has started recovering after gradual reopening last October. With vaccines now developed to battle the pandemic, he noted with confidence Filipinos now know more how to protect selves from the COVID-19 infection and ways to avoid it even with the presence of new variants of the virus.

“I think after this month, we should be in a better position to relax further,” Chua asserted. However, he conceded the opening the economy further will still depend on both economic and health data that the IATF will review again. Once quarantine restrictions are relaxed, Chua pointed out, family activities with their children could resume as these are 30 to 50 percent of non-essential consumption that could push back the Philippine economy to the growth track.

Actually, there was nothing new in what Chua, who heads the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), has been talking about. When he spoke to us last Dec. 16 in our virtual Kapihan sa Manila Bay, the NEDA chief was forthright and candid about the same economic figures before and after COVID pandemic.

Designated as official mouthpiece of the IATF, presidential spokesman Harry Roque disclosed last Jan.18 the IATF approved in principle the placing of areas with no COVID-19 transmission under “new normal.” This means community quarantine will no longer apply but all residents in these areas are still required to follow minimum safety protocols collectively called: “mask – hugas (wash hands) – iwas (social distancing).

The “new normal,” as IATF defines it, is the “emerging behaviors, situations, and minimum public health standards that will be institutionalized in common or routine practices and remain even after the pandemic while the disease is not totally eradicated.”

Does this mean the government can now get us back to the “new normal” track? Your guess is as good as mine.

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