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Opinion

Dire

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Maybe the worst is not behind us – but ahead of us.

We have gone through a terrible August as far as the pandemic is concerned. Infections and deaths rose to record levels we have not even imagined in July.

Now we are told the peak of this present surge or spike (the DOH frowns on these vivid terms) might come at the end of September. Maybe.

In the meantime, all the restrictions will likely remain in place. This will have dire repercussions for our economy. The economic managers have reduced our growth targets from 6-7 percent this year to only 4-5 percent. We might not even make that if we continue to strangulate economic activity.

Already, our factory output for July fell to a 15-month low. The numbers for August could be worse. The goal of a quick rebound from last year’s ghastly recession seems to be quickly slipping from our fingers.

The local branch of the WHO conceded that the Delta variant of the virus has become the dominant one in the country. That is to be expected.

Viruses mutate as a matter of course. The mutations could make the new variants weaker or stronger. The weaker variants soon become extinct. The stronger (more transmissible) strains prevail.

This follows the law of natural selection. The fittest survive. In the case of the coronavirus, unfortunately for us, the fittest variants are the more dangerous ones.

The present surge in infections we face, like similar surges in India and Indonesia, is driven by the more transmissible Delta variant. This has led to a rise in “breakthrough” infections among the fully vaccinated. There is not enough data yet to establish if this more transmissible variant also brings down the efficacy of vaccines.

This is even bleaker. Health authorities are monitoring newer variants in South Africa and Peru. The one propagating in Peru is now referred to as the ”Mu” variant. It is described as having “potential properties of immune escape.” In plain English, this means the new variant could develop resistance to vaccines.

With COVID deaths rising again to over 1,300 per day, the US is bent on mandating a third “booster” jab. While the new variants are getting stronger, the vaccines appear to have waning benefits. Humanity could spend the next few years undertaking continuous cycles of vaccinations.

As new variants appear, it might become necessary to reengineer the vaccines themselves to match emerging strains. The first generation of this terrible virus, for which the first vaccine formulations were designed, could be extinct soon. They will be replaced by deadlier variants.

In which case, the first rounds of vaccination are merely precautionary. They are not the final solution to this pandemic.

Right now, 51,9000,590 doses of vaccines have been delivered. Through September, we expect 25,000,000 doses to be delivered. In total, we have 187.6 million doses secured. We could easily scale up vaccinations to a million per day through this month, double the current pace.

But all that might be to little avail if new variants resistant to available vaccine formulations emerge.

It is always easier to imagine a more benevolent course for this pandemic. I recall how, last year after the first community quarantines were imposed, we were planning for the usual Easter reunions. Two Easters have passed since and we are still locked down.

Last July, when OCTA recommended a return to ECQ, the idea was heckled as “alarmist” even by epidemiologists serving on government advisory panels. A few days later, ECQ was imposed in the face of rising cases. The “alarmists” were right after all.

In the four weeks tight restrictions were in place, we hit our highest infection and mortality rates. ECQ was the last bullet in the chamber. We have expended that, to little avail.

Extending the restrictions that now seems likely given the infection spike, will kill whatever economic growth prospects we might have – at least for this year. That will extend the miseries, especially of the poor.

This is a discomforting thought, but it seems imminent. It will be made certain by the emergence of even more contagious variants.

With vaccines now pouring in, we are told to expect a happy Christmas. We earnestly hope so, of course. But we were told the same thing last year.

Should a new vaccine-resistant variant emerge, we will all be forced back to the drawing board. Meanwhile, we are running deeper into debt and the scars on the domestic economy threaten to be permanent.

Meanwhile, too, health workers are out protesting in the streets, demanding the benefits they were promised. There are threats of mass resignations even as our health system struggles to recruit additional personnel. There is demoralization in the sector most vital to surviving this scourge.

The official narrative about this pandemic has been upbeat. Perhaps this is necessary to keep up public morale. An OCTA survey shows that 80 percent of Filipinos generally approve of the way government has been handling this wild plague. The approval is not undeserved.

Still, we need to look at the worst-case scenario regarding this crisis. That will help keep all our plans and projections sober. This pandemic will take a little more time to simmer down. Its twist and turns will become more complex as we go along.

Anyone who mounts the podium and claims he has found a magic solution to this crisis we should elect president – or condemn to an asylum.

Meanwhile, the plague puts the rest of our personal and national agenda on hold.

DOH ECONOMIC
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