FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

The shift from the old community quarantine categories to the new levels of community alert levels is more than just tinkering with the strategy. It is a shift in the entire public health paradigm.

Just in case anyone failed to notice: We are no longer out to achieve a zero COVID-19 condition. That has proven to be an unsustainable and ultimately futile strategy. The virus has become endemic. It will linger around us for many years to come.

The only leverage we have against this virus is vaccination. Everything hinges on the success of our vaccination program. We cannot afford to fail on this front.

On a per capita basis, the UK has substantially more infections and deaths per day than we do. Yet nearly all COVID-19 related restrictions have been lifted. It is understood that this society is ready to take a certain toll to keep the economy open. If they did not do that, the UK government will be bankrupt way before the virus becomes extinct.

Most other European countries are moving in this general direction. They are trying to convince their publics that the first line of defense against the virus is the individual citizen himself. He must take responsibility for observing minimum health protocols. Meanwhile, state-sponsored vaccination should expand population protection so that while many may get infected, few will require hospitalization.

Last week, US President Joe Biden mandated vaccination for all federal employees and for all companies employing at least a hundred workers. The US remains the epicenter of infections and deaths in this pandemic. Nearly all of those stricken did not receive vaccine jabs.

The rich countries have increased their donations of vaccines to the poorer countries. With a better supply situation, we could build herd immunity soon. China has vaccinated over a billion of its citizens. That is a mind-boggling number, a great feat of statecraft.

Vaccine deliveries have improved in our case as well. Over the next few weeks, we could be able to deliver close to a million jabs a day. This will be a test of our health care capacity. The best we have done so far is to administer 700,000 doses in a day.

Meanwhile, we will have to bear with “granular” lockdowns and all the inconvenience they bring.

“Granular” lockdowns require more manpower to enforce. But unlike community quarantines, they involve tighter restrictions on target communities.

The new strategy is a more dynamic one. It takes into account not only cases of infection but also health care utilization levels in localities. It enables a better contact tracing effort than in the old shotgun community quarantine strategy.

In principle, this new strategy is still in the experimental stage limited to the NCR. But because the entire NCR is categorized as being in Level 4 risk level, we cannot yet appreciate the flexibility and specificity that this new strategy is capable of.

After two weeks or so, the various components of this sprawling metropolis should be able to localize their alert levels. Those cities more capable of managing the public health situation will be rewarded to lower alert levels and hence better economic performance. Those vaccinated will also get preferential treatment in terms of access to restaurants. Personal care services awarded with safety seals will be able to do better business.

The new approach to this pandemic better encourages good public health behavior. It shifts the balance of enforcing health protocols to smaller community units and eventually to households and individuals. This will get more people involved in battling the pandemic.

Complicated it may seem at first blush, this “granular” strategy makes much better sense than the blanket restrictions on movement. It of course requires the local governments to be constantly on top of the situation in their jurisdictions. The business groups seem to be happy with this approach.

Hopefully, the “granular” approach will lead to more economic activities. We have downgraded our growth projections once. We might have to downgrade once more if movement continues to be restricted.

We now have a better idea about how devastating the community quarantines have been to our small businesses. In the NCR alone, about 100,000 small businesses deliver personal care services. There could be more small businesses serving food. All of them bore the brunt of quarantine restrictions.

They still do, actually. Going to the barbershop now requires a vaccine certificate. Carinderias are forbidden from dine-in services (although most of them are mercifully tolerated). These are the sorts of small businesses that explain the spike in the unemployment rate.

We will try to manage over the next few months to get these small businesses back on their feet through better targeting of restrictions. The “granular” strategy is the way to get to that.

The blanket community quarantines should now be a thing of the past. They were resorted to because we did not know any better and also because we panicked (as we should) in the face of a pandemic. Starting this week, we hope to be moving towards a more focused strategy.

The virus will keep on mutating. But it will infect only to the extent that the population is unprotected and lax in the observance of health protocols.

No need to wait for the New Normal. We are in the New Normal. We will be here for many years to come.

Unfortunately, there will be more infections and more deaths coming. Those are the tolls of this global calamity. The challenge is to mitigate the effects of infection through the magic of vaccines.

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