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Opinion

Rebuked and exposed?

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

“For everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open and every secret will be brought into the light.” – Mark 4:22 

Just when we thought things were improving regarding the state of COVID-19 in the country, it turns out that recent government “feel good” announcements may have all been for show, specifically for the SONA. Last week, it was announced by a DOH official that the country was now at the “Low Risk” category. Given the quarantine fatigue Filipinos took the announcement in stride. Then the IATF followed with an announcement that interzonal travelers need only to present their COVID vaccination cards to prove they are fully vaccinated and would no longer need to present an RT-PCR test or undergo quarantine upon reaching their local destination. I was very happy to hear the IATF announcement, although I cautioned readers and viewers to double check because such announcements in the past always had some condition attached, such as not applicable to seniors or not applicable to children, etc.

Lo and behold, all those announcements were immediately challenged or rejected. The most significant challenge came from the World Health Organization, which issued a cautionary reminder to the Philippines that such declarations could result in complacency and place Filipinos at risk of exposure and spreading the Covid variants in the country. On the same day the front page of The Philippine STAR reported that vaccinations in seven cities in Metro Manila were stopped because they all ran out of vaccines. By mid day, the president of the League of Provinces, Governor Presbitero Velasco of Marinduque, expressed the league’s strong opposition to the waving of the mandatory RT-PCR test required by various LGUs. Velasco pointed out that in spite of being fully vaccinated, there are reported cases of people still being infected by COVID-19 and a high risk of fully vaccinated people being carriers and spreading the virus during their travel.

When I interviewed Dr. Anthony Leachon, former IATF consultant and health reform advocate and thorn in the flesh of government officials trying to manipulate the COVID-19 narrative, Leachon supported the position of the WHO, pointing out that the declaration that the Philippines is now “Low Risk” cannot be substantiated, given the continued spread of the virus and its variants in the provinces, the very low rate of vaccination of the population, as well as how the country was placed in the bottom in terms of vaccination and management of COVID-19.

Leachon also confirmed the fears of the League of Provinces because Dr. Leachon has observed the same thing with his fully vaccinated patients who turn out to be asymptomatic or have mild COVID when tested before being allowed into hospitals. As far as border controls are concerned, Dr. Leachon stressed the need for a travel ban between Indonesia and Southern Philippines, citing the former’s proximity. “That would be the most effective, considering that Indonesia is just at the southern border of Mindanao, and Davao City still has the highest new cases.“

As far as the “Low Risk” declaration of the DOH, Dr. Leachon said the current COVID-19 positivity rate is at 11.3 percent versus the WHO benchmark of 5 percent that is considered the normal value. The positivity rate is the total positive cases out of the total tests done per day per area. The positivity rate will be high if the number of positives is too high or if the number of total tests done is too low. This would indicate that there are likely to be more people with the coronavirus in the community that have not been tested. The percent positive is critical because it gives us an indication how widespread infection is in the area where the testing is occurring and whether levels of testing are keeping up with levels of disease transmission. 

At the moment, the DOH and IATF have put most of their focus on acquiring vaccines and vaccinations and essentially limited testing. So we are not testing enough and the available test results give a high score, thereby refuting the “Low Risk” claim. When I asked about the wisdom of declaring the country as “Low Risk” and forcing LGUs to waive RT-PCR tests, Dr. Leachon simply blurted out that the two announcements from the DOH and the IATF might be a reaction to the negative ranking that the Philippines earned from Bloomberg in terms of managing COVID-19. Allowing fully-vaccinated people to travel unrestricted a few weeks before the State of the Nation Address would surely create a wave of approval for the government and would certainly be very useful as part of the pre-SONA optics. No wonder Malacañang was adamant that LGUs accept vaccine cards as entry passes into their territories. We would all have been rejoicing and shouting Hallelujah but eventually mourning and moaning in pain for those who end up contracting any of the COVID-19 variants weeks after the SONA when another lockdown would surely be announced if a surge takes place.

After being “rebuked” by the WHO, the DOH leadership has acknowledged that the “Low Risk” declaration would not be helpful. If anything the DOH must be embarrassed to be in this situation. What’s interesting to find out is if Malacañang will remain bull headed and immoveable on its decision to waive RT-PCR tests in favor of vaccination cards. Probably not, because the latest news is that both local and national authorities had a major meeting yesterday to decide who gets their way. Who will take full responsibility for any unforeseen disaster, community transmission or tragedy resulting from allowing vaccination cards as the single requirement for travel? We all know the State of the Nation Address and no amount of window dressing can make things look better. Keep political strategies out of public health. Focus on getting vaccines, vaccinating all Filipinos and creating bubbles of safety and productivity. Nothing more – nothing less.

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E-mail: utalk2ctalk@gmail.com

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