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Opinion

Evolved

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

The decision has been taken. NCR+ is moving back into ECQ by the end of this week.

For a while last week, there seemed to be some tension between the DOH and a volunteer research group monitoring the numbers. OCTA research group proposed a “circuit breaker” lockdown of the metropolitan area as COVID-19 infection rates began to rise. The DOH maintained that there was no conclusive data showing community spread of the Delta variant responsible for surges in infection across the globe.

The impasse was broken, it appears, by Metro Manila mayors opting to go early and go hard. With our severely limited genome testing facilities, it took an average of 21 days to confirm infections as being caused by the highly transmissible Delta variant. By the time data is available confirming the community spread of the variant, it will be too late to stop a surge.

In fact, some analysts are saying ECQ ought to have been imposed on the first day of August. We might be running a week too late. OCTA projected that had the decision to return to ECQ not been taken, new infections in the NCR could be running at 30,000 per day by the end of this month. With ECQ, that surge could be moderated to 18,000 per day.

This is still a very high number. It could collapse our health care system which, at the moment, it having difficulty recruiting new staff.

We just have to look around our region to see how a vastly more contagious variant works. There are deadly surges in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Japan extended its state of emergency in the face of record infections. A higher number of new cases happens even in China, notwithstanding its impressive containment of the original Wuhan variant.

The WHO warns that the situation has evolved. No country is safe from surges in infection driven by the Delta variant, now present in 137 countries. Even countries with comparatively high vaccination rates will see spikes in infection. An example is the US where new cases are rising in all 50 states, even after over 50 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. Mask mandates are being returned in many areas and companies are requiring their employees to be vaccinated.

Even while infections rise, the number of cases requiring hospitalization is lower in the highly vaccinated countries. In the US, only .001 percent of recent deaths involve people who were vaccinated. The available vaccines are spectacularly successful in preventing serious symptoms.

In the highly vaccinated countries like the US and the UK, spikes in the number of infections do not reflect in a commensurate spike in the number of people requiring hospitalization. It is the less vaccinated countries that are vulnerable to an India-like surge in infections.

We know that the world is unevenly vaccinated because of supply constraints. Poorer countries have less vaccine access, exposing their people to surges driven by the Delta variant. The pledge of the rich countries to donate billions of doses to the developing societies will help close the gap. But that will not be enough.

We are now in a desperate race to vaccinate ahead of a surge. Unlike August last year and March this year, we have ample vaccines to put up a real fight. Our vaccine procurement has been reinforced with the arrival of new donated batches from Covax. We have received hundreds of thousands of Astra Zeneca doses from the UK and Moderna doses from the US.

Nevertheless, the heightening of restrictions starting the end of this week will deeply scar our economy. The plan for recovery is now delayed. Many of the jobs we lost over the period of the pandemic will not likely return. Many more businesses will go under.

The two-week upgrade to ECQ will cost the economy about a couple of hundred billion pesos in lost revenue. Day workers will be cut off from their sources of livelihood.

Then there is the possibility that the two-week lockdown might not be enough. It could be extended if infection rates continue to rise sharply. The economy will be even more deeply scarred.

But we do not have much of a choice. The evolution of the virus dictates how the pandemic will run. All our responses are forced moves.

Things are not inexorably moving from bad to worse, however. This time we have an armory of vaccines to fight off the virus. This is the vital synergy.

We now have tens of millions of doses in our vaccine stockpile. We did not have that last March as the second wave gained momentum.

The large deliveries of vaccines we received over the past week, both procured and donated, are timely. In the NCR, some local government units have plans to vaccinate around the clock the next few days. If we do this purposively, we could win herd immunity in the Metro Manila area within two months.

Fortunately, our people have been receptive to the vaccination program. They have patiently lined up, even in the most inclement weather, to get themselves inoculated.

There will be no want of groups who will try to exploit the health emergency for political advantage. Days after the quarantine restrictions were imposed last year, a community in Quezon City heavily influenced by leftists tried to mount a strike. The police dealt with that decisively.

When a new round of ECQ was announced, leftist mouthpieces in Congress held a press conference to picture this as a failure of government. It is not. It is the evolution of the pandemic.

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