‘Green’ countries or not

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) released last June 30 the list of 57 countries and jurisdictions that got the “Green” or go-signal for fully vaccinated travelers whether Filipinos or foreigners coming from these areas can now enter our country. The IATF classified as “Green” these “low-risk countries based on a set of incidence rate” of the deadly coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic still persisting around the world.

Notwithstanding there are COVID-19 variants that are more transmissible, President Rodrigo Duterte has approved IATF Resolution No.124-A providing the guidelines for inbound international travels to any ports of entry allowing “individuals fully vaccinated in the Philippines, regardless of travel history, and those vaccinated abroad who stayed exclusively in ‘Green’ countries/jurisdictions.”

From this list of 57 “Green” countries, many of them are notably neither popular nor familiar places to us Filipinos.

For example, where in the world are these places located: Benin, Eswatini, Sint Eustatius, Isle of Man? Pardon my being poor in world geography, or is it because there have been no entries from them yet in the Miss Universe or Miss World beauty pageants?

To date, however, it is not clear to the public what are the “science and data” from which the IATF based this recommendation. The same IATF Resolution merely stated the “Green” countries were recommended by the Department of Health (DOH) and the Technical Advisory Group. And that, they passed and “met the prescribed incidence rate and case trajectory” that the IATF considered on its monitoring of COVID-19 pandemic, presumably on worldwide basis.

But the only incentive to these fully vaccinated travellers to come to the Philippines is they can undergo a much shorter quarantine period of seven days.

Previously, 14 days of quarantine were required at the height of the outbreak of the pandemic last year when many COVID-impacted countries, including the Philippines, closed its borders and went into hard lockdowns. Swab test has since then been required upon arrival of all inbound travelers. While waiting for results, they will stay at designated quarantine facility for 14 days. If negative, no need to complete quarantine.

The IATF subsequently amended this, requiring only a 10-day quarantine upon arrival with a swab test on the 7th day. If tested negative, they will still spend the remaining quarantine days in isolation at the local government area they will proceed to.

Bureau of Immigration (BI) commissioner Jaime Morente explained only fully vaccinated passengers “who stayed solely in the 57 ‘Green’ countries within the past 14 days before their arrival” in the country are covered by the new IATF guidelines. These travelers need only to present during primary immigration inspection their respective booking to stay seven days in a government-accredited quarantine facility once they arrive here.

The BI clarified all un-vaccinated travelers, however, are still required to undergo 10-day isolation in a quarantine facility and swab test on the 7th day. If negative, they still must complete the 10-day isolation at the quarantine facility.

The IATF though still strictly maintains the policy that all fully vaccinated travelers are still required to undergo reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (real time RT–PCR) test on their fifth day of the quarantine in a government-accredited facility, with their day of arrival already counted as the first day.

The RT-PCR, done through nasal and pharyngeal swab tests, is one of the most accurate laboratory methods for detecting, tracking and studying the COVID-19 infection. But it is the most expensive one, especially for travelers arriving via our Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminals 1, 2 and 3.

A friend who is immuno-compromised flew last May to Los Angeles, California where his children are living and secured for him anti-COVID jab using Johnson & Johnson (J & J) vaccine. Undergoing immuno-therapy for his nasal cancer for the past three years, he is found to be safe for J & J one-dose anti-COVID vaccine.

J & J is said to be effective against the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 and supposed to have an immune response lasting at least 8 months, Janssen Research & Development at J & J declared last week. The Delta variant was traced as primary cause of thousands of deaths in India since April and has since spread around the world, including the 17 confirmed cases here in the Philippines.

After he and his wife got their J & J jabs, they returned home last June 14 thru a direct flight of the Philippine Airlines from LA to Manila and deplaned at NAIA-2. Each of them paid as much as P4,000 for RT-PCR test. The couple underwent swab tests not just once but twice. The second swab, they were told, was for the genome sequencing, obviously to detect possible foreign variants.

Fortunately, the couple turned in negative results. They got the clearance from the Bureau of Quarantine exactly on their 10th day stay in a hotel-designated quarantine facility. They missed the newest IATF guideline which took effect starting July 1.

With such additional expenses to keep a COVID-free travel, it would be very, very tough for our Department of Tourism (DOT) to revive our country’s travel and tour industries, especially to bring back foreign tourists arrivals.

For domestic tourism, the DOT has partly been subsidizing our local travelers by giving a qualified domestic visitor to pay P750, or half the price of the P1,500 RT-PCR test cost.

Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat cited this subsidy program of the DOT is just one of their strategic steps to market and promote the Philippines as a safe tourism destination as we gradually reopen our country to the rest of the world.

To stay COVID-free, we must pay for the higher costs of these health and safety protocols. For now, “Green” countries or not, governments around the world are still giving free the anti-COVID vaccines to get all of us out of this pandemic.

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