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The way out

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - May 15, 2021 - 12:00am

The UK says that from Monday we’re going to be allowed to hug each other again. I never thought there’d be a day when hugging would be a matter of government regulation and a news story. Looking over the list of what we’re now being allowed to do gives the sense of a sudden shock, like glaring daylight after a long time in a darkened room; the coronavirus pandemic plunged the world into a real-life dystopian sci-fi nightmare. You can wake up now, we’re being told.

After months of strict lockdown rules, those of us in England are now being told that people will be allowed to meet outdoors in groups of up to 30 people and indoors in groups of six, or with one other household. As many as six people or two households can stay overnight and social distancing with family and friends will become a matter of personal judgement.

When it comes to work there’s another sign that the pandemic has changed things, possibly for good, with the government advising people to continue working from home if possible.

At schools, pupils no longer need to wear face masks in classrooms or in communal areas in secondary schools and colleges. Still, now that everyone is getting free lateral flow tests, students are expected to test twice a week to control infection rates. University students can return to in-person teaching and learning, and should get tested twice a week upon return.

It’s huge news for the leisure, hospitality and entertainment industries that pubs, cafés and restaurants will be allowed to let people indoors, and serve food and or alcohol to seated customers. Museums, cinemas and children’s play areas can reopen; accommodation such as hotels, hostels and B&Bs can reopen; and adult indoor group sports and exercise classes can resume.

In the storied West End theater district, doors will finally swing open again along with concert halls, conference centers and sports stadiums in line with capacity limits.

Even big events will be allowed: If indoors they can take in up to 1,000 people or 50 percent of a venue’s capacity, whichever is lower. If outdoors, like the music festivals that are so popular here, events with a capacity of either 50 percent or 4,000 people, whichever is lower, will be permitted.

Weddings, receptions and other life events, such as bar mitzvahs or christenings, can take place with up to 30 guests. There will be no limit on the number of people at a funeral except the size of the venue. Care home residents will be allowed five regular visits, and more freedom to make low risk visits outside their home.

Even the ban on foreign travel will be lifted, people will be able to travel to so-called “green list countries” without quarantining on return. The Philippines is not one of them.

Perhaps it’s part of some kind of dastardly government scheme to prevent travel to places where the pandemic is not being managed properly, but compulsory quarantine here compared with the Philippines is being carried out like a punishment.

The BBC and the Guardian reported that travelers staying in quarantine hotels in the UK after returning from “red list” countries have complained of “prison-like” conditions, including windows that do not open, a lack of fresh air, exercise and decent food.

The travelers, who had recently been in quarantine hotels after returning from countries including Brazil, India, Pakistan and South Africa, complained their mental and physical health deteriorated because of being confined in their bedrooms round the clock and being forced into debt to pay the £1,750 (the equivalent of P117,592.17) per adult charge for the quarantine period.

It’s also an indication of the widening gap between how different societies around the world have managed the pandemic. A recent UK study found that COVID vaccines have saved 11,700 lives and 33,000 hospital admissions. Nine out of 10 people aged 40 and over have now had a first vaccine dose in England. The impact of the vaccines is likely to be similar across the UK, with more than 53 million doses administered in total.

It’s the same inequality that is providing the biggest worry to the plans to open up society again, in the form of the so-called Indian variant. Cases more than doubled to 1,313 in a week. There’s evidence of widespread community transmission, though there’s no firm evidence yet to show that it “escapes the vaccine” or has any greater impact on severity of disease. Health authorities  say “economic or social” restrictions could be imposed in parts of England in response, and second vaccine doses could be brought forward in response to the rising cases.

So far the UK’s vaccines minister is arguing that surge testing is the “most effective way” of dealing with variants. It means that increased testing and enhanced contact tracing is carried out in specific locations to try to prevent the spread of outbreaks. It’s already taking place in 15 areas across England.

The onus has very much shifted on to the vaccines, rather than social distancing and restrictions, to keep the virus at bay. The UK has benefited from both fast rollout and good uptake, with a third of the adult population fully vaccinated, with another third having had one dose.

Until the coronavirus outbreak the global economy relied on freedom of movement within and across international barriers. The UK’s economic strength is a product of centuries of imperial trade; the Philippines’ economy is dependent on the earnings of migrant workers as well as trade.

Advocates argue that the international community must remember the goal is not only to produce a widely available, safe and effective vaccine, but also to bring the pandemic to an end. That’s only going to happen once billions of doses are produced affordably and made available to everyone, particularly those in low-income countries. While every government has a responsibility to put its citizens first, during a pandemic, this means thinking and acting globally. If manufacturing agreements or export restrictions obstruct the deployment of vaccines and the virus survives anywhere, no one can be safe from the impact of the pandemic.

“No one is safe until everyone is safe” has become a slogan for global health figures but not enough is being done to embed the principle in the world’s response. This is a historic test for global cooperation; access to vaccines, tests and treatments for everyone who needs them is the only way out.

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