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FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 1, 2021 - 12:00am

Now we know. Fighting a pandemic is much like rolling a rock up a hill. At any point, we could find ourselves back at the foot of the hill once more.

After more than a year of fighting COVID-19, a gripping sense of futility engulfs us all. That sense of futility is also our biggest enemy. It saps the will to fight. It drains the determination to prevail.

We cannot surrender to that sense of futility. When we find ourselves seemingly where we began, we just have to roll up that rock again. The inspiration to do so has, of course, become a rare resource.

When government decided to return NCR-Plus to ECQ status for the Holy Week, it was a sound decision. Holy Week, in our case, is a rare part of the year where nothing moves. In terms of net economic effect, the ECQ period translates into losing only about two days of work.

Fine. But will a week of tighter restrictions break the momentum of a serious surge in infections?

The independent analysts reviewing public health data say a week under ECQ will not be enough. If the momentum in infections continues, we could see active cases climb up to 400,000 by the end of April. That is a horrendous number. With 100,000 active cases, the health system in NCR-Plus is on the brink of collapse.

The DOH agrees. The agency now supports extension of ECQ in NCR-Plus for another week. If we open up too early, we risk the possibility of people dying in the streets. As things stand, we are seeing people die in the parking lots of hospitals waiting for beds to be available.

The IATF says that while extending ECQ is possible, it will happen only as a last resort. Judging by the numbers, it seems we are quickly running out of resorts.

Government’s hesitation is understandable. Tighter restrictions, maintained for a longer period, impose huge penalties on the economy. They will inflate the unemployment number and push small businesses under. It could take us years, maybe even a decade, to recover from all the lockdowns that happened.

Unfortunately, the pandemic is proving to be a resilient foe. In the US, with the most massive vaccination effort anywhere, cases began rising again the past week. New restrictions have been imposed in France and Germany because new cases number over 30,000 daily for each. A surge in cases in India will affect that nation’s ability to export vaccines – including the ones we are due to receive.

General Magalong, our contact-tracing czar, admits our tracing system is in shambles, limited only to tracing members of an infected household. That tracing system, unaided by digital technologies, was never adequate to begin with. We just accumulated pieces of paper with illegible contact information at the doors of malls and restaurants.

Other countries, notably Vietnam, have disciplined institutions in place such as the millions-strong Communist Party to double up as contact-tracing apparatuses. China, early on, fully deployed its awesome social surveillance technologies to the task. We do not even have a functioning national ID system, thanks to those who opposed building such a system because it supposedly infringes on civil rights. Now those who opposed building a national ID system for nearly three decades are the loudest in complaining about our inability to effectively contact trace.

In his last address to the nation, President Duterte ordered the liberalization of private sector importation of vaccines to speed up inoculation. We do not know what this means exactly in operational terms. All available vaccines are technically experimental in nature. They cannot be imported and traded commercially. The manufacturers will only sell doses on a tripartite arrangement where government assumes responsibility for any indemnity that might have to be paid.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson quickly issued a statement saying that if private sector importation was relaxed earlier we might have vaccinated enough to achieve herd immunity by this time. That could not be true. From the time the first vaccine was granted emergency use authorization to today, the world labored with short supply. Under any domestic arrangement, we could not have imported vaccines anyway – let alone achieve herd immunity by this time.

Remember that the Philippines is importing comparatively small amounts of the vaccine. We have had to use diplomatic contacts and foreign power brokers to get any attention from the manufacturers. When the Biden administration, for instance, decided to drastically scale up its vaccination program, Pfizer decided they would attend to our order at some unspecified later time.

We are a small player in the world of vaccine nationalism. Like many emerging nations, we are hoping the rich countries will donate the vast hoard of doses they have accumulated – not so much out of graciousness but because these doses have short shelf lives.

Some of our senators, early on, played politics with the importation of Chinese vaccines – making this part of their anti-China campaign. As things turned out, only Sinovac was prepared to deliver in any scale and Beijing was generous enough to make a donation of a million doses. Without the Sinovac vaccines, we would have no vaccination program at this time.

We do not know how much vaccine we will eventually need until this virus is rolled back. There is no data yet on how long they invest immunity. A number of previously infected persons have been re-infected.

We just have to keep rolling that rock uphill – hopefully with less partisan chatter in the background.

COVID-19 ECQ
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