SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Is the downtrend in COVID cases for real, and can it be sustained so there can be some cheer this Christmas?

OCTA Research thinks so. Health professionals are urging caution.

Authorities are still trying to find out if the decrease in cases is due to fewer RT-PCR testing. They are trying to determine if this is because people are taking antigen tests instead and not reporting positive results if hospitalization is not needed. Many infected people prefer home quarantine, which can allow them to work from home.

There’s also the theory (which may be hard to verify) that fully vaccinated persons who experience breakthrough infections but suffer no recognizable serious COVID symptoms no longer bother to have themselves tested, believing the vaccine will protect them from hospitalization. They simply observe isolation protocols to protect other members of the household.

So even the Department of Health is urging caution as economic managers and the business community call for the easing of COVID restrictions particularly in Metro Manila. There is grousing in the DOH that OCTA pronouncements are confusing the public.

On the other hand, OCTA’s COVID trend tracker, University of the Philippines math professor Guido David, says all indicators – most significantly hospital COVID bed utilization – are all going down.

OCTA uses government data in its projections, David told us on One News’ “The Chiefs” last Monday, as the pandemic response team was meeting with President Duterte.

David reiterated an observation, also reported in the US and several other countries, that the COVID variants of concern seem to behave in cycles, rampaging for about three months before losing their infectiousness.

In keeping with his field of expertise, David presented some mathematical calculations that tend to support this theory.

So if Delta is finally losing its transmissibility, the only thing that can get in the way of Christmas cheer would be the emergence of yet another highly contagious coronavirus mutant.

*      *      *

Is the downtrend for real? There are people who aren’t waiting for the experts to come up with a definitive answer.

Last Sunday I went to Divisoria to buy fruits, and was surprised by the size of the shopping crowd. It was nothing like the heavy pre-Christmas October foot traffic of previous years, but it seemed like the pandemic was over. People still wore masks and some had face shields, but distancing was forgotten, and no one seemed interested in enforcing it.

Last year we saw a similar phenomenon, after the August surge that prompted health professionals to call for a “timeout” as hospitals were overwhelmed. President Duterte seemed to have misheard and thought it was a call for a “walkout,” and picked a fight with the frontliners. This year, in an even deadlier surge driven by Delta, his mouthpiece has heroically sustained the fight with physicians, who were urging caution in easing restrictions.

Infections subsided substantially in the fourth quarter last year, which allowed the slight easing of restrictions for the holidays. We were actually able to have small family gatherings for Christmas, New Year’s Day and Three Kings (for gift giving) as daily COVID cases fell below 1,000.

The problem at the time was the absence of vaccines. Some administration officials themselves disclosed that we were supposed to receive 10 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab in January, facilitated as early as July 2020 by the US State Department, with payment to be sourced from multilateral lenders. But the Duterte administration, fixated on Chinese vaccines and the hope (unfounded, it turned out), that Uncle Xi would take care of all our vaccine needs, “dropped the ball” on the Pfizer deal.

As businesses, particularly in the travel and tourism industry, prepared for a summer revival this year, the infectious Alpha and Beta variants arrived, rampaging from March to May and dashing hopes for a rebound.

This time, as the Delta-driven surge abates, the difference is that the vaccines are here. While Delta has significantly raised population vaccination targets for herd immunity, Metro Manila is reportedly nearing population protection.

Unlike the Alpha and Beta mutants, however, Delta is infecting children and accounting for a high number of breakthrough infections.

The death from COVID of Commission on Human Rights chairman Chito Gascon at age 57 and the post-COVID death of former social welfare secretary Dinky Soliman illustrate how perilous the situation remains.

So it’s worrisome to see those packed crowds in Divisoria, and children allowed to roam freely in the streets and swim in the waters of Manila Bay.

*     *      *

Some of those pushing for greater economic reopening argue, in so many words, that the COVID death rate in our country is manageable, and we can afford to risk more deaths as we “dance” with the virus. This is easy to say for those who have not personally gone through COVID hell and suffered grievous loss.

Those who have experienced the horror will not wish the same suffering on others.

Personal misery and awareness of other people’s suffering – whether in terms of health, life or livelihood – are surely among the reasons why the longest Christmas season in the world is now much shortened. Filipinos are delaying the display of Christmas décor, and Christmas carols are not yet being played.

Instead, people these days are preparing for the days of remembering the dead. For many, the wounds inflicted by the pandemic are still raw.

Others are mourning lost livelihoods and facing an uncertain future. Last week I received a notice from one of the country’s top local importers of quality food products, from premium steaks, seafood and dairy to my favorite French baking chocolate brand, Valrhona. A major supplier for high-end hotels, the company informed me it was shutting down for good.

For these people, it will take time before they can get in the mood for holiday celebration. It will be a cheerless Christmas in their households.

Like it or not, the 2021 Christmas celebration will be muted. If the Delta-driven surge has truly abated, it will just be a bonus.

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