Cycle of hell

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - May 3, 2021 - 12:00am

On May 1, the first day of the “flexi” MECQ, 9,226 new COVID infections were recorded nationwide.

From whichever angle, that 9,226 is still too high to relax safety protocols. The daily average in the past week stood at 8,246 – a long way from the 1,174 average in the final week of December 2020, or even the 2,137 at the end of February.

This variant-fueled surge is still raging, and it looks like it’s just getting started in areas outside Mega Manila.

The situation is bad not just in the National Capital Region and the provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal or NCR Plus, but also in Zamboanga City, where the local government shut down all beaches, inland resorts and establishments with pools amid a spike in COVID infections. The city’s health office chief warned last week that their local health system was “starting to be overwhelmed,” with hospitals and isolation facilities already full.

But perhaps because it was Labor Day, the government felt it had to revive more jobs. From 300,000 to 500,000 jobs were expected to be brought back with the resumption of indoor dine-in services in restaurants as well as reopening of barbershops, nail spas and hair salons in the NCR Plus.

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I went to a mall near my home to buy a few items that I needed, and also to check out the situation on Day One of the flexible modified enhanced community quarantine.

Although it was a holiday weekend, the crowd was sparse both in the indoor and al fresco dining areas. Several of the largest restaurants in the mall remained closed.

A top restaurant chain set up a roadside stall in our village, selling five of its best-selling dishes, with four uniformed employees waving to passing motorists and pedestrians. I didn’t see anyone stopping by. I guess business was bad; they packed up shortly after lunchtime.

At the mall, hair grooming establishments also had few customers, even if the employees were fully clad in personal protective equipment. But there were quite a number of clients in the nail spas. Since manicure-pedicure involves physical contact between customer and employee for 30 minutes to an hour, you have to admire the women’s determination (some would call it madness) to get their mani-pedi in an enclosed, air-conditioned space amid this COVID surge. Maybe the clients, fully relaxed in their reclining seats, have been fully vaccinated.

Monitoring compliance with seating / venue capacity limits in personal care establishments is easy in malls and other commercial centers. But what about smaller establishments outside malls? I saw many barbershops operating even when the NCR Plus was under enhanced community quarantine.

Last Friday on One News’ “The Chiefs,” we asked Trade Undersecretary Irineo Vizmonte if the government has enough personnel to monitor compliance with those 10 to 30 percent limits set on seating or venue capacity for the businesses that have been allowed to reopen.

Vizmonte admitted that even if local government, barangay and police personnel assisted the Department of Trade and Industry in ensuring compliance with the capacity limits, it would still not be enough. He is urging the public to assist in the task, for the safety of their own community, by reporting violators to the DTI. People will need a hotline where anonymous tips can be given.

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Because most COVID patients want to strictly maintain their privacy, their stories of personal hell aren’t being told, and the horror caused by this disease remains unreal to many people. All they see are the daily statistics of sickness and death (and recoveries).

The virulence of the variants in particular has not been highlighted enough, and in fact was played down by the government until it was facing over 10,000 new infections a day and hospitals were being overwhelmed.

In the past two months alone, as physicians themselves have pointed out in interviews, they have seen a spike in infections of entire households, and increasing cases of sudden deaths after nearly two weeks of mild or asymptomatic infection. Seniors aren’t the only ones succumbing to the variants; these virulent new strains are claiming the lives of even people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

This is no longer a 14-day affliction. There are too many reports of post-COVID pneumonia, with patients who thought they had recovered after two weeks succumbing to the complication. The drop in oxygen level (which puts a heavy strain on the heart and other body organs) feels like drowning and can cause panic.

An infection can be devastating for both health and finances. I know several people whose entire households got infected. In one case, the father, in his 50s, had a severe infection and had to be hospitalized for about a month due to complications. Their bill ran up to more than P7 million – and tragically, he still couldn’t be saved. The grieving family is buried in debt.

A prominent person who did survive COVID after nearly a month of hospitalization ran up a bill of around P3.5 million – but maybe there weren’t complications like those of the poor father.

Among those hungry people who jostled for actress Angel Locsin’s birthday food giveaway amid the variant surge, two have so far tested positive for COVID, and one has infected an 11-year-old daughter. I fear that this horror, unfortunately, is just starting for that crowd.

Even home isolation doesn’t come cheap. RT-PCR testing costs from P2,000 (saliva) to nearly P8,000, and you need at least two before you are cleared. I know people who had three tests before getting a negative result. You have to spend on medicine (extra charge for home deliveries), telemedicine consultation, thermometer and oximeter. Multiply that by the number of household members, if everyone got infected. Near recovery, you need a chest X-ray to see if you have pneumonia, and possibly an ECG to ensure no damage to the heart.

Once all symptoms are gone and you feel you don’t need an RT-PCR, you may be told by your doctor to be tested for antibodies to see if you have developed some immunity against COVID, and to see if it’s safe for you to mingle with other people again. All of these tests don’t come free.

With vaccines arriving in trickles, and with no significant boost in capabilities for testing and contact tracing in this deadly COVID surge, we’re headed for a cycle of infection and death spikes and more lockdowns.

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