FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 24, 2021 - 12:00am

India broke all records the other day when it reported over 300,000 new COVID-19 cases in a 24-hour period. In the five days preceding that, the country tallied over a million new cases.

Those are devastating numbers. They translate into immense human suffering and thousands of deaths per day. The country’s fragile health system was overwhelmed weeks ago.  The past few days saw a serious shortage of oxygen tanks needed by the patients.

The devastating surge in infections across the Indian subcontinent is due mainly to the crowding of millions of people celebrating Hindu holidays. The Modi government, reliant on devout Hindu voters to remain in power, is being held responsible for the devastating surge in infections.

A distinct Indian variant of the virus has been detected as far as Belgium. Unless this massive outbreak is checked, it could provide conditions for even more new variants to emerge.

Large parts of Europe are presently in lockdown due to strong third-wave surges in infections. Only the UK, with its impressive vaccination program, is substantially bringing down its infection numbers.

Iran is likewise suffering from a third wave of infections. Daily infection tallies are running at about 24,000 per day.

We are, of course, enduring a massive second-wave surge in infections. The decision to put the NCR and surrounding provinces under ECQ appears to have broken the momentum of this surge. Reproduction and positivity rates have been declining significantly the past few days.

What do we learn from these surges?

First, this virus, unlike others that caused epidemics previously, does not seem to weaken over time. Instead, it produces new variants that are more transmissible. The moment a community yields to pandemic fatigue, the infection rate springs up.

Second, it will take us years to suppress this virus so that we can return to some form of normality. Since the pandemic shows resiliency, it is the other aspects of our life that will need to adjust to the threat it poses. Social life, work arrangements and family interactions all have to bow to the minimum health protocols.

Third, vaccines are the only real weapons we have to extinguish this virus. The vaccines build up our immune systems to defeat infection. Our own bodies are the battleground of this war.

Continuing shortage

We do not have enough vaccines. Even that sounds like an understatement.

Over 7 billion human beings are under threat from the coronavirus. The best estimates put vaccine production as about 1 billion for this year. These vaccines have varying efficacy rates, complicating the calculations.

Every nation is anxious to stamp out the virus within their borders. The richest ones have hoarded vaccine supplies to support that goal. The poorest ones have no access to vaccine supplies.

The world’s largest vaccines producer, India, is now holding back exportations to meet the surge of domestic infections. That will affect deliveries and vaccination schedules elsewhere. Fortunately, new producers, such as South Korea, are stepping up to create the supply. But it will take a few more months before they could deliver anything in any significant quantity.

Sec. Carlito Galvez, the chief implementer of our own national effort, estimates that vaccines will begin to reflect in our infection rates by the onset of the fourth quarter. That is an optimistic estimate. Since we produce no vaccines, we are subject the supply vagaries in the global market.

At the moment, we are assured of Sinovac supplies in trickles. In a few weeks, we might be getting deliveries of Sputnik V from Russia. We are not too confident of early deliveries of American vaccines Pfizer and Moderna, although small deliveries are due from the Covax Facility. Basically, we are waiting for the North Americans and Europeans to get their vaccination programs done before we can realistically expect any large volume of deliveries.

Our vaccination program has been well mapped out. We have thousands of health workers and volunteers ready to execute the program. In addition, many of our large companies have volunteered to procure vaccines on their own and administer them at their expense. But the vaccine supply just isn’t there.

We are pulling diplomatic strings and even unabashedly begging for vaccine supplies. That will be to little avail until we reach the point that the rich countries have inoculated most of their populations.

Keep quarantines

We have little choice. Without the vaccines securely delivered, we have to maintain the community quarantines we have gotten used to over the past year.

We will arrive at yet another decision point later this week when the April MECQ arrangement expires. There will surely be popular pressure to relax the restrictions. The quarantines have taken a heavy toll on the economy.

The agitation to relax restrictions will be amplified by the declining infection numbers the past few days and an even more dramatic reduction in our reproduction rate. Clearly, the most recent lockdown achieved its intended effect. While agitators might try to equate lockdowns with a “militarized” pandemic response, it is the only effective way to break the momentum of a surge.

The various expert panels that advise the IATF and the Metro Manila mayors have yet to express their quarantine preference. As has consistently been the case, our pandemic response is guided by science.

My own inclination is to continue the MECQ arrangement for another month in the NCR Plus area. Not enough vaccinations have been done. The number of active cases remains high. Our hospitals are still stretched.

The natives are restless, to be sure. Extending MECQ will be a test of political will.

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