SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - July 23, 2021 - 12:00am

Everyone is engaged in improvisation in responding to this pandemic. Still, it must be possible to inject some method or system into the improvisation.

When we had only a few COVID infections, an extreme lockdown was imposed in Metro Manila, economic heart of the country, and the rest of Luzon.

This time, with COVID cases averaging 5,048 daily in the past week, children aged five and up have been allowed to go outdoors.

Remember when we had only a handful of COVID infections? It seems like another lifetime ago.

COVID Patients 1 and 2, Chinese tourists straight from the coronavirus’ birthplace, Wuhan City in Hubei province, had arrived on a cruise ship that docked in Manila’s Port Area. The man died here on Feb. 2; his female companion survived.

There was no ban on travelers from China; the Duterte administration, as announced by a top official, did not want to offend Beijing.

Nothing wrong with that – if we could contain the virus that President Duterte belittled on Feb. 3 as “nothing to be scared of… it will just die a natural death.” On Feb. 7, he said, “Gusto kong sampalin ang gago (I want to slap the idiot)” – referring to the coronavirus.

We all know that the virus refused to die a natural death. Instead, as of yesterday, it had claimed 26,891 lives in the country, with over 1.53 million infections.

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On March 12 last year, with all of 52 infections and just three deaths, Malacañang announced that effective March 16, the National Capital Region would be placed under one-month “community quarantine” – its euphemism for a lockdown. In the evening of Manic Monday, Duterte announced that CQ would be “enhanced” from the NCR to the entire Luzon the next day, March 17.

Chaos reigned on Day One of ECQ.

Just a day later, March 18, total COVID infections had quadrupled from the March 12 figure, to 193, with 17 deaths. Does this remind you of the current transmission trend of the Delta variant?

Business groups thought the lockdown was madness. What would happen to businesses, to jobs? Foot traffic at the malls had already plummeted following the confirmation of COVID community transmission.

And yet the government went ahead, putting the country on the road to the steepest pandemic recession in the Asia-Pacific.

On March 14, a Saturday, I drove northward to Makati along the South Luzon Expressway, and saw bumper-to-bumper traffic on the southbound section. People were fleeing quarantine in Metro Manila – with some potentially bringing the virus with them.

Local executives outside Metro Manila were flabbergasted by the Luzon-wide ECQ, and so were their constituents whose livelihoods were affected.

But it seemed that our China-centric government, after rolling out the red carpet for the coronavirus from Wuhan, also decided to follow the response of Beijing to the threat – which was to lock down entire cities.

What was missing from the Philippine response was the mass testing that followed in China, the rapid construction of mass isolation facilities, and the enormous resources of the world’s second largest economy for ayuda to the affected. Being the country of origin of what Donald Trump called the Wuhan virus, China immediately had on hand the basic ingredients needed to develop the gold standard COVID test.

In our case, we still had to send samples all the way to Australia to confirm COVID infection. The Research Institute for Tropical Medicine in Alabang, Muntinlupa later began conducting the tests, but with greatly limited capability.

The Department of Health seemed to distrust private initiative, apparently seeing it as competition. It took weeks and a tussle with Marikina Mayor Marcelino Teodoro before the DOH gave the green light to the COVID testing center set up in the city, using the reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction test developed by the University of the Philippines-National Institutes of Health and Philippine Genome Center, and mass produced by Manila HealthTek Inc.

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In contrast, Taiwan, having learned its lesson from the SARS epidemic that also originated in China, imposed border controls as early as January, as soon as reports began emerging about a highly contagious and deadly virus spreading in Wuhan.

Taiwan eschewed any economically crippling lockdown. It did not stop face-to-face classes and mass transportation.

Instead Taipei flooded the island with face masks, told manufacturers to ramp up mask and alcohol production, and rolled out a highly efficient digital contact tracing app, with capability for monitoring home isolation, backed by human enforcement. Social distancing was implemented, but nothing like in our quarantine measures.

Throughout the pandemic, I have been in touch with Taiwan residents who email, chat and send images of themselves riding trains, traveling all over, dining inside restaurants and, some weeks ago, strolling barefoot on the beach (great for the health, I was told).

In 2020, when our economy spiraled into its deepest post-war recession, Taiwan, like Vietnam, managed to post GDP growth of 2.98 percent. It grew by an enviable 3.05 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Its successful response lulled Taiwan into seeing no rush to vaccinate. But this is changing. Recently, the Delta variant forced some restrictions in Taiwan, including a shift to distance learning from May 18 to mid-July. But with the health safety protocols and infrastructure long in place, Taiwan is coping much better than others.

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In our case, 16 months after Luzon was locked down, we still don’t have a decent national contact tracing system to speak of. We can’t even sustain the services of a mere 15,000 contact tracers. We don’t know the status of the contact tracing czar – or if we still have one, since the designated czar, Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong, seemed non-committal when told to defer his resignation. If he’s still the czar, he has been a dismal failure.

As for COVID vaccination, all economic growth projections for the country are being revised downward partly because of the slow vaccine rollout. Until the threat of the proliferation of fake vaccination cards loomed, there was no strong effort to set up a central database for the inoculation program, or at least make the myriad versions of vaccination cards interoperable.

It must be stressed that all countries are also improvising in addressing the pandemic, and we’re not the only one scrounging for vaccines. This is a once-in-a-century pandemic so a trial-and-error response is inevitable.

But it’s also undeniable that in several other aspects of the response, there have been too many errors. Improvisation has been chaotic and even downright disastrous.

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