The Delta wave

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Over the weekend I visited a large mall for the first time in about six weeks. It was disheartening to see even more shops shuttered, with no more intent to reopen.

You can tell which ones are closed for good because the store spaces are already boarded up, with no sign of a possible replacement coming up.

Those temporarily closed still have their merchandise intact, which can be seen through tempered glass walls and padlocked doors.

There was a long line at a sporting goods store (beside three shuttered shops), but only because it was holding a closing out sale, everything must go, with some merchandise offered at giveaway prices.

Even at the food court, with dine-in capacities extended, about half of the tenants had packed up, again with no potential replacements advertised, as the mall used to do pre-pandemic.

The large fast-food and casual dining chains that remained open at least had more customers, particularly those dining in. But you can tell that the business environment remains challenging.

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With slower foot traffic, there are fewer personnel in dining places and service suffers. Last week in another mall, I spent nearly 15 minutes waiting for just one take-out hotdog at S&R, even if the place wasn’t even full.

At a new Thai fast-food, I was told that I would have to wait 20 minutes to take out an order of pad Thai noodles. In 20 minutes, with some instant condiments, I can whip up my own pad Thai at home, at a fraction of the cost. In 15 minutes, I can prepare several hotdogs with all the fixings.

Go Negosyo founder Joey Concepcion had told us on One News’ “The Chiefs” last year that his family’s RFM Corp. in fact saw an increase in its processed food products such as sausages as the pandemic forced people to stay home and cook their own food.

At the mall that I visited over the weekend, the lines in the supermarkets remained long. The supermarkets continue to see brisk business even amid the pandemic.

Other businesses that are thriving amid COVID are the gardening supplies. Also sprouting all over are enterprises providing pet supplies, grooming and health care. The acute lack of face-to-face human interaction is reportedly driving more people worldwide to keep pets.

As for the shops that have shut down, it can only be because they don’t see better times ahead in the near future, at least for their brick-and-mortar operations (some might have migrated completely to online retail).

The investment analysts have been saying it in recent days: the threat posed by the Delta variant is again dampening investor confidence, with fears that economically crippling lockdowns might again be imposed.

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Undoubtedly, the analysts are seeing trends not only in our country and within the region but worldwide, as Delta wreaks havoc on economic reopening plans even in places where COVID vaccination is highest.

Indonesia is now being referred to as the new epicenter of the pandemic, although the cases remain high in India where Delta was first reported. Thailand is also grappling with surges attributed to Delta, and even Singapore is seeing a spike in cases.

With vaccinations increasing, people were eager to brush aside warnings from the World Health Organization that the planet isn’t out of the woods yet, that in fact the pandemic could be entering a more dangerous phase as more virulent variants emerge, evading existing vaccines.

There are increasing stories of breakthrough serious infections even among people fully vaccinated with the Pfizer jab, aside from infections and deaths among people with two doses of China’s Sinovac. Indonesia is giving Moderna booster shots to its health workers who have received the two full doses of Sinovac, despite the WHO’s repeated admonition that there is still no need for boosters.

The rush for boosters has been fueled partly by Pfizer’s application for US regulatory approval for booster shots as the Delta variant becomes the dominant COVID strain in the United States and several other countries.

In the Philippines, the government is heeding the WHO advisory on booster shots. Infectious disease specialist Dr. Rontgene Solante, a member of the vaccine expert panel, stressed to us on The Chiefs Monday night that the country can’t consider boosters at this time particularly because the vaccination rate is still too low. The focus, he said, must be on fully vaccinating enough people first to achieve herd immunity before we can even talk about booster shots.

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The world’s eyes are again on Britain – the first country to administer the Pfizer shot, the first vaccine to be approved by the world’s stringent regulatory authorities for emergency use against COVID-19.

Despite concerns raised by health experts, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pushed ahead with “Freedom Day” on Monday, lifting COVID restrictions such as mandatory mask wearing, social distancing and work-from-home guidelines. On the same day, however, Johnson had to go into isolation after being exposed to his health minister, who was infected with COVID. Freedom Day was also marked by skyrocketing COVID infections in Britain, which was already grappling with the Alpha variant before Delta arrived.

While the UK has a much better healthcare capacity than India, there are fears that a Delta-fueled surge could eventually overwhelm British hospitals because of the lifting of COVID restrictions.

Such restrictions are being reimposed in several areas in the US, for example, where case spikes attributed to Delta forced President Joe Biden to put off declaring “Independence Day” from COVID to coincide with the Fourth of July celebrations.

Biden is now at pains to persuade US anti-vaxxers to get their shots. There are talks of a COVID “fourth wave” brewing in the US (and in France).

The US and Britain are two of the countries with the highest vaccination rates. And yet look what’s happening.

Will we also be forced to restore restrictions amid the Delta threat? Solante told us that health experts are reconsidering the decision to allow children aged five and older to go outdoors.

Local officials may also lose their discretion to accept vaccination cards in lieu of RT-PCR tests for inbound travelers – an easing intended in particular to revive tourism. Instead the test requirement may be reimposed.

At the Monday night briefing, President Duterte warned of possible tighter restrictions to prevent the local transmission of Delta.

Vaccination and sustained adherence to health protocols are the best ways to prevent a Delta-driven wave.

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