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Inside the bubble

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 24, 2021 - 12:00am

Let’s see… within the travel bubble of Metro Manila, Cavite, Laguna, Rizal and Bulacan, people can enjoy “staycations” and day visits to travel destinations and resorts.

But you can’t bring along with you household members who are aged 17 and younger and over 65. So no complete family outings. The destinations must also comply with specified carrying capacities.

Churches within the bubble will be shuttered till Easter Sunday. As in Quiapo Church, however, where Black Nazarene devotees worship outside even if the doors are closed, the government won’t stop the faithful from performing the traditional Visita Iglesia outdoors.

Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, who is acting chief of the Philippine National Police while Gen. Debold Sinas is recuperating from COVID, said PNP personnel will merely ensure compliance with mask wearing and physical distancing rules during outdoor church visits.

Eleazar, facing “The Chiefs” Monday night on One News, showed us neat graphics on what he calls the “NCR Plus bubble” – encompassing the National Capital Region and the four adjacent provinces.

There was traffic buildup and some confusion at the borders of the bubble, he said, and even within, as some local government units (LGUs) initially prohibited crossing from one bubble component to the other.

Eleazar stressed that the PNP itself has been hit hard by COVID, with 13,147 of its 220,000 personnel getting infected and 1,399 succumbing to the disease as of March 21.

Camp Crame, the PNP headquarters where Sinas is confined in the general hospital, is on lockdown, being the epicenter of COVID infections in the police service.

Eleazar said the hospital’s COVID capacity is already full – reflecting similar situations in many hospitals big and small in the NCR, both private and state-run.

*      *      *

Last Monday as fresh COVID cases surged past 8,000, the Philippine Hospital Association called for healthcare workers’ reinforcements from the PNP, Armed Forces of the Philippines and BPO firms where many nurses have opted to work as call center employees because of better pay.

If this trend keeps up, the government might yet have to resort to the “circuit breaker” lockdown, or something akin to it while avoiding the term “lockdown.”

Presidential adviser for entrepreneurship and Go Negosyo founder Joey Concepcion calls the NCR-Plus bubble a “modified lockdown.”

Maybe the Duterte administration is avoiding the “L” word because it carries the painful reminder that we’ve had the world’s longest lockdown, yet here we are, looking like we’re one step away from square one.

Worse, all the money for ayuda has run out, and we’re buried in debt to pay for vaccines. This could be another consideration in avoiding the original lockdown under enhanced community quarantine, when even mass transportation was banned.

The absence of distancing especially in jeepneys is seen as one of the factors behind the current COVID surge. But the government can no longer afford to provide another aid package to drivers and operators of mass transportation.

*      *      *

With attention focused on containing the surge, let’s hope there’s no letup in preparations for mass vaccination.

As we are seeing now, the vaccines must be administered ASAP upon delivery. The logistics requirements for a speedy rollout in our archipelago of 7,100 islands must be entrusted only to reliable pros. The process must be as organized as possible. And the vaccinators must be sufficiently trained. This could be a problem if our healthcare workers are also swamped with patients from the surge.

In the US and UK, the government – instead of entrusting the vaccination program to local government politicians – partnered not only with drug stores but also with retailers of pharmaceutical products for the vaccine rollout.

The United Kingdom – the first country to approve and administer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine under emergency use – started negotiations with community pharmacies for the vaccine rollout way back in December last year.

In the United States, people can walk not only into a CVS or Walgreens pharmacy branch but also outlets of retail giant Walmart for their COVID shots. Vaccination schedules can be booked online. And President Joe Biden is aiming to declare American independence from COVID this Fourth of July.

In our country, the government has shown reluctance to forge partnerships with the private sector. As Joey Concepcion pointed out, this is the only country where the private sector is ready to shoulder part of the financial burden in COVID vaccine procurement, logistics and administration, not only by providing jabs to their own employees but also donating half of any procurement to the government.

Elsewhere, governments are shouldering the entire cost and vaccinating their people for free.

Several LGUs have also allocated hefty chunks of their funds for vaccine procurement. Yet the LGUs have been told that the procurement must be centralized in the hands of the national government.

*      *      *

The only request of several business groups, which have initiated their own talks with vaccine makers, is tax-free importation, and freedom from the bureaucratic glacial pace of entering into a tripartite agreement with the government.

Last Monday, President Duterte said the government would not guarantee “blanket immunity” to vaccine makers in indemnification for adverse effects of any vaccine even with a tripartite agreement. So what’s the purpose then of such agreements? That statement could have pushed the country closer to the bottom of the long, snaking global line for vaccines.

Yesterday, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez said that only the importation of AstraZeneca vaccines required donating half of the jabs to the government. Concepcion earlier said the vaccine developed by the Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca together with Oxford University would cost P500 under a no-profit, no-loss pricing arrangement.

Malacañang, for its part, had to clarify that Duterte’s statement against “blanket immunity” referred only to gross and willful negligence on the part of the vaccine makers.

With COVID cases surging, hospitals becoming overwhelmed, most people again forced to stay at home and the vaccination program moving as slowly as molasses, several senators are calling for changes in the COVID response team.

For starters, the senators said, real MDs or medical doctors should be brought in to replace the “military dati” or former military officers.

After a year of restrictions and anticipation of the vaccines, the current “bubble” woes are particularly disappointing. The military dati are under the supervision of higher-ups. How high up will the blame go?

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