Silver lining

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 22, 2021 - 12:00am

By June 30, Metro Manila will be on the cusp of achieving COVID-19 herd immunity.

Not because we would have vaccinated at least 70 percent of the estimated 14.2 million population (about 9.94 million people), which is looking increasingly like a scenario that will have to wait for a year.

Instead what we will achieve could be even better: natural herd immunity, as 8.5 million permanent residents of Metro Manila would have been infected with COVID-19 by the end of June.

This is the “silver lining” that Mathematics professor Guido David sees as the coronavirus and its mutations rampage across Metro Manila and elsewhere at the current pace.

David and his fellow professor in OCTA Research, Ranjit Rye, say the impact of the latest restrictions will be felt only after about two weeks, so we will continue seeing infection numbers soar through the Holy Week.

The two University of the Philippines professors said this to us on “The Chiefs” last Friday on Cignal TV’s One News. That was the same day that fresh COVID cases nationwide breached the 7,000 mark for the first time, with 7,103 infections. OCTA’s prophets of doom proved depressingly accurate again, as this record was broken on Saturday, with 7,999 fresh cases.

Yesterday the new cases decelerated a bit to 7,757, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 663,794.

The OCTA team proposed a “hard” general community quarantine (GCQ) for Metro Manila, shifting to an even stricter “soft” modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) in case the restrictions fail to significantly curb the transmission.

With Holy Week just around the corner, Rye fell short of suggesting that churches be shuttered again and people just rely on masses and prayers streamed from selected churches, as in the previous year. He simply said he was confident that the Catholic Church would want to keep its flock safe and would do the right thing.

*      *      *

The government, seemingly allergic to the term “lockdown” since the Philippines is already being routinely referred to as the country with the longest lockdown, nevertheless recognized the dire outlook.

Yesterday, after an emergency meeting, Malacañang announced the tightest restrictions yet since the end of ECQ, but with many economic activities allowed to continue.

It also found a more benign desription for the restrictions: Metro Manila is now under a “travel bubble” together with neighboring Cavite, Laguna, Rizal and Bulacan, where people can’t get out or enter except those previously authorized plus supply deliveries.

Religious gatherings are banned for two weeks, so there go the traditional Holy Week observances.

Only restaurants with al fresco seating can accept dine-in, with distancing. The rest are limited to take-outs and deliveries.

Malacañang explained that the latest restriction status isn’t being called a hard GCQ or soft MECQ because there are differences in the protocols. Industries and personal grooming shops are still allowed to operate, for example, and public transportation capacity isn’t being reduced.

*      *      *

Guido David made his remark about natural herd immunity tongue in cheek.

It could in fact be a silver lining – if it didn’t lead to more deaths and long-term debilitation. But we know this is not the case. There were 39 new COVID deaths reported yesterday, bringing the total to 12,968, with 73,072 active cases that can potentially be transmitted.

Hospitals are nearing critical level. Our health frontliners are exhausted again.

Health officials continue to avoid the word “surge” or attribute the spike to coronavirus variants. Elsewhere, however, there is no such hesitation. Paris was the latest mega city to return to lockdown while Brazil is grappling with a virulent mutant. There is talk about a “fourth wave” hitting the planet.

The World Health Organization (WHO) partly attributes COVID spikes in certain places to “vaccine optimism.” This is true in the case of the Philippines. But we also have different variants here, and our vaccine optimism has been vastly diminished with the pace of our inoculation program.

We can only look with envy at the wealthy countries that are nearly done with their vaccination targets for achieving herd immunity.

In the United Kingdom, where the first Pfizer shot in the world was administered, infections have reportedly dropped dramatically to 90 percent in the past 10 weeks; in the United States, it’s 80 percent. Israel, whose vaccination program is ahead in the world, is nearly back to normal.

*      *      *

With the latest modified lockdown, the business community is becoming even more antsy. Like several local government units (LGUs), business groups want to go it alone in vaccine procurement.

Benedicto Yujuico, president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told The Chiefs last week that their group could bring in Covaxin, produced by India’s Bharat Biotech, for the employees of PCCI members, mostly engaged in small and medium enterprises.

He said they asked the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases two months ago for clearance to import the vaccines tax-free.

As in the case of LGUs, however, the IATF wants all vaccine procurement centralized.

Among the reasons given: for private companies, a tripartite agreement is needed, under which the firms will donate half of the procured tax-free vaccines to the government; emergency use authorization cannot be used for commercial procurement; the economies of scale – the larger the order, the cheaper the price; the vaccine priority list must be followed.

Yujuico explains that commercial use means making money out of the procurement, which he stresses won’t be the case with the PCCI.

As for the vaccine priority list, Yujuico didn’t say this, but the Presidential Security Group and several VIPs jumped the line many months ago, using smuggled Sinopharm jabs.

The government is supposed to bring in the vaccines that it has ordered, ahead of anything that private companies might source through their own initiative.

But so far, all we have for this month are the 600,000 AstraZeneca doses from the WHO’s COVAX Facility (we can’t thank them enough), plus one million China-made Sinovac doses donated by Beijing (thank you as well, but apparently in return, they can send 220 of their fishing militia to our waters off Palawan).

Under these circumstances, Guido David’s silver lining might turn out to be a tragic reality rather than a joke.

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