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Going around in circles

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 17, 2021 - 12:00am

We don’t want another strict lockdown. At the same time, we want to contain the surge in COVID cases.

So think about it: what if we all limited our mobility for two weeks through the Holy Week, even confining Visita Iglesia to within our respective cities and nearby areas? Meaning, for the second consecutive year, we eschew the annual Lenten grand vacation.

Players in the battered tourism industry won’t like it, but this is a possible compromise to the suggestion of a member of the OCTA Research team for a “one-time, big time” two-week lockdown coinciding with the Holy Week, to stop the COVID surge in its tracks.

Dr. Maricar Limpin of the Philippine Heart Center, who is vice president of the Philippine College of Physicians, told “The Chiefs” last Monday on OneNews / TV 5 that a voluntary limitation on travel during the Holy Week break would be most helpful in containing the surge in infections. The group is opposing another widespread lockdown because of its impact on the economy.

The Department of Health (DOH), citing insufficient scientific data, is still not calling it a “surge” or blaming the spike on the more infectious coronavirus variants.

But with the spike leading to measures that are tantamount to a variant of the strictest enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), people are wondering: after a year of lockdowns, are we back to square one?

*      *      *

That’s what it seems like, for those now confined to their homes again in areas under special concern lockdown, or who have again been forced to shutter their businesses.

Vaccination has started, thanks largely to donations from China and the World Health Organization’s COVAX Facility, but it is crawling along.

At the regular Monday briefing with President Duterte, Health Secretary Francisco Duque reported that at 100 jabs a day per inoculation site, the country has the capability to vaccinate 450,000 people daily.

We need to vaccinate at least 70 million people to achieve herd immunity. This means it would take from five to six months to administer the first vaccine dose to 70 million Filipinos, Duque said.

And it means another six months to complete the second dose – if the vaccines are available.

Duterte tried to drum up hope, which is what presidents are supposed to do in a crisis.

“Do not despair. Kaya natin ito (We can handle this),” he said. “We’ve gone through worse.”

In truth I can’t think of anything worse in my lifetime, and I’ve been around long enough. As the President pointed out, however, “this is a fight not just against COVID, but against despair and hopelessness.”

*      *      *

Fighting despair is becoming a bigger challenge for many as tighter restrictions are reimposed. In the country’s bargain center, Divisoria in Manila, stores once again closed early as the longer curfew hours began on Monday.

Yesterday, the Metro Manila Council banned people aged 17 and below from going out of their homes. NAIA operations were ordered scaled down, with a cap set on incoming passengers, while flag carrier Philippine Airlines further cut down its already drastically reduced flights.

Healthcare workers are again grappling with a COVID “surge” – the term used by several Metro Manila mayors confronting a rapid spike in cases.

Major private hospitals are reporting that their emergency rooms are now full to capacity. Government hospitals are also warning that their COVID bed capacities are nearly full. Still, doctors are not yet asking for another timeout.

On Monday, anniversary of the start of COVID quarantines in the country, fresh infections jumped to a seven-month daily high of 5,404. It was also the fourth highest daily case total since the start of the pandemic.

The OCTA Research team said the surge can’t be considered a second COVID wave since the first wave has not actually flattened and isn’t even over yet. I don’t know if that’s a positive assessment a year into the pandemic response.

Crunching the infection numbers and transmission rates, those nasty OCTA doomsayers are projecting the daily case total to hit 11,000 by month’s end, and from 18,000 to 20,000 by mid-April, unless sufficient interventions are undertaken.

Since the start of the pandemic, OCTA has had a frighteningly accurate track record in projecting the COVID situation, although it has slipped at least once, with no post-holiday (and post-Black Nazarene feast) surge occurring. The team will be happy to be proven wrong again in its worst-case scenario for the coming weeks.

This will depend on compliance with COVID health protocols. It could be challenging as the Holy Week approaches and the government sends conflicting messages about reviving tourism and containing the COVID spike.

*      *      *

Doctor Limpin points to the loss of distancing in mass transportation as a major source of the spike. All health experts are pointing to the overall weakness in compliance with basic health protocols.

Already, several provincial governors are seeking tighter travel restrictions, especially for people from the National Capital Region. Their concerns are not unfounded, considering that travelers from the NCR have faked their COVID swab test results to enter tourist destinations.

This is what doctors are emphasizing: even with the rapid spread of the COVID variants, the same containment measures apply.

By now we have become familiar with these measures: wear a mask and if possible a face shield; maintain distancing; practice hand hygiene and cold/cough etiquette.

By now, however, many people have also grown tired of the containment measures. Health workers are blaming this for the COVID spike. The government is clearly worried enough to reimpose many restrictions.

RT-PCR testing capability is now greater, although even the P2,000 saliva test is still a fortune especially for those who have seen their livelihoods lost or much diminished.

Health officials say treatment and isolation capacities have also been vastly expanded. Even government officials, however, concede that contact tracing – a critical component in containing viral transmission – is inadequate.

Meanwhile, 99.9 percent of the 70 million Filipinos who must be vaccinated to attain herd immunity are still waiting for our jabs, which will likely arrive in sufficient volumes only in the third quarter. I’m not expecting to get my shot before the ’ber months.

A year into the lockdowns, we seem to be going around in circles.

*      *      *

POSTCRIPT ON ANTI-ASIAN HATE CRIMES: A white man has been arrested for assaulting a Filipino-American woman on the Caltrain in San Jose, California. As a reader who says he’s a Black American pointed out in an email, most of the hate crimes against Asian-Americans are perpetrated by white people, not Blacks.

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