Locked down… again

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 29, 2021 - 12:00am

Remember the good old days?

On March 16, 2020, when the entire Luzon was first placed under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), our country had only two new cases, bringing the total to 142.

The next day, a Monday, the new infections jumped to 45, for a total of 187. It was the same day that the Department of Health (DOH) first confirmed community transmission, and President Duterte placed the entire country under a state of COVID calamity.

A day later, on March 18, we had 202 total cases, with 17 deaths.

Last Saturday, when the National Capital Region plus the provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal were ordered reverted to ECQ effective this Holy Week, with an 11-hour curfew, we had 9,808 fresh cases in one day, for a total of 703,000, and 54 deaths, bringing the toll to 13,149. The ECQ announcement in the “NCR-Plus bubble” took the wind out of the Earth Hour observance on Saturday, as people rushed to supermarkets again to stock up on basic necessities.

How did we jump to these awful numbers, from the 764 daily fresh cases recorded on Dec. 28 last year, Holy Innocents’ Day, with the transmission rate flattening through January?

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To this day officials still refuse to put too much weight on the entry of more infectious COVID variants, preferring instead to blame people for becoming lax in observing basic health protocols. They have also refused to call the jump in infections a “surge” – even if the consequent scare could encourage better compliance with health protocols.

This is reminiscent of the Duterte administration’s denial of the seriousness of the infection threat from China at the start of the pandemic. So the government refused to close our borders to Chinese travelers, for fear of offending the Duterte administration’s overlords in Beijing. A shipload of Chinese tourists docked in Manila’s Port Area; another ship docked in Davao City.

Not surprisingly, our first patients were two travelers from China’s Wuhan City, the origin itself of the COVID virus. And congratulations, we have the dubious distinction of recording the first COVID death outside China.

In contrast, China’s neighbor Taiwan, having learned its painful lesson from the SARS contagion, closed its borders to the mainland in early January, flooded the island with 14 million face masks (with orders for more from local manufacturers) and informed its citizens through electronic messaging about where to get the masks, activated a highly efficient contact tracing app, and prepared special quarantine facilities as well as protocols for home isolation, with stiff fines for violators.

Taiwan imposed border controls and restricted the entry of foreigners, but it never resorted to lockdowns. Its economy kept humming and schools, offices, commercial establishments and places of worship remained open.

As of Saturday when the return of ECQ was announced in our country, Taiwan, with its population of 23 million, had all of 1,013 coronavirus cases, 973 of whom had recovered, and 10 deaths. Taiwan has officially been proclaimed as Asia’s top performing economy in the pandemic year of 2020, with gross domestic product growing by 3.11 percent, fueled by a record jump in tech exports – higher for the first time than China’s 2.3 percent – with 2020 fourth quarter growth at 4.94 percent.

Despite low urgency for COVID vaccination, Taiwan rolled out an initial 117,000 doses of AstraZeneca on March 22, with only 33 people still hospitalized for COVID. In our country, hospitals in the NCR-Plus bubble are becoming swamped – one of the reasons for the ECQ.

China itself has done better than us, with total cases as of yesterday at only 90,159, only 161 active cases and 4,636 deaths. The last time China reported new infections was on March 25, with 11 cases, all from abroad. For this entire month, its daily fresh cases have not exceeded 20. It has administered 97.47 million COVID vaccine doses to its people as of March 26 – pretty slow, considering the size of its population and the fact that it has three locally made COVID jabs available – but its infection rate is enviable (if the data is accurate).

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Yesterday, for the first time, there were no vendors of palms in the churches around my home. Several supermarkets that I visited had long lines again.

After a year of various degrees of quarantines, this return to ECQ, while necessary to contain the surge, is particularly oppressive. The frustration is exploding all over social media, directed inevitably at the government and its pandemic response.

The government has latched on to vaccine optimism for the current surge. This is partly true, although there were also numerous warnings about a disappointing vaccine rollout, and vaccine optimism quickly evaporated.

Confused messaging was a bigger driver of relaxed adherence to health protocols. We were being invited to travel for leisure again; conferences were back; distancing was no longer enforced in jeepneys, tricycles, buses, trains.

We reopened the economy without commensurate building of capacity for contact tracing and testing. As the World Bank study pointed out, a combination of long lockdowns and low testing (compared to those in neighbors such as Vietnam) led to our economic deterioration – the worst recession in the region, and the worst prospects for recovery.

Our contact tracing czar himself has admitted weakness in this area. As for testing, even the P2,000 for the saliva test of the Philippine Red Cross is too high especially for those who have lost their livelihoods in this pandemic. PhilHealth won’t pay for saliva tests, and the PRC continues to be burdened by the balasubas PhilHealth. The one-day wait for saliva test results is still too long, and there are limited areas offering the test. No wonder people are faking test results.

The government should look at other saliva and breath tests – accurate but cheaper and with faster results – now being rushed into mass production abroad. Never mind if expensive molecular diagnostic laboratories, installed not just by the PRC but also by the national government and several LGUs, will be rendered obsolete by advances in testing technology.

With the glacial pace of our vaccine rollout, an easy, quick, accurate and cheap test for COVID can go a long way in restoring consumer and traveler confidence and in reviving the economy.

It can help us avoid more ECQs.

In the meantime, once again cooped up at home, we have all the time to review the country’s pandemic response, draw conclusions on what went wrong, and pin responsibility for the mess.

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