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Opinion

Overconfidence

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

It must be vaccine overconfidence. Or the relaxation of health protocol enforcement. Or simply quarantine fatigue. Or all of the above.

With the lowering of the alert level in Metro Manila, distancing is being tossed out the window in certain areas. This was evident in Divisoria over the weekend, and in that crush of people wanting to enter Manila’s dolomite beach.

The lines outside the beach were still long even last Monday, although of course less so compared to the weekend.

As I have written, from the perspective of someone who was born and bred in the ugly neighborhoods of Tondo and Sta. Cruz, that beach is one of the handful of attractive outdoor spots in the city. And the problem would not be resistance to it from those worried about the bay environment. The problem, especially in the time of COVID, would be enforcing a carrying capacity; it would be controlling the crowds that would want to spend time on the beach.

Enforcing allowed capacities is in fact a serious challenge that authorities must confront efficiently and aggressively, if we are to avoid another COVID surge and a return to crippling lockdowns.

The task is easier in shopping malls. With the easing to Alert Level 3, mall fastfood courts have reopened. But the entrance is now regulated, with only those who can present vaccination cards allowed into a cordoned-off area. The card is required even for those who just want to order take-out.

This strict adherence to safety protocols is reassuring for the vaccinated, and could encourage more people to dine in. At a mall that I visited last Monday, there was a decent-sized lunchtime dine-in crowd at the food court.

Vaccination incentives and requirements may also end the retail Armageddon at high-rent commercial centers.

*      *      *

The Armageddon shows no signs of ending this holiday season. Yesterday I visited one such commercial center, and was depressed to find even more shops shuttered for good. Foot traffic was unusually low. Understandably, there were no Christmas carols being played anywhere in the sprawling mall.

The situation is different in the open-air shopping areas. Like al fresco dining, outdoor shopping hubs like Divisoria are seeing a return of the holiday crowd.

Police and local government units must not be remiss in their duty of enforcing the health safety protocols in these areas. People do follow rules – when these are enforced.

Last Sunday, for example, I dropped by the shopping area in Dapitan to check out the vendors of Christmas décor. Ropes were strung along the streets and around the buildings to regulate foot traffic and crowd capacities.

The building aisles were as narrow as in pre-pandemic days so people inevitably still brushed against each other while walking around. Still, you appreciate the effort to regulate the number of people inside.

Uniformed cops with nightsticks and bullhorns patrolled the area, breaking up clustering and keeping vehicles from blocking the streets.

Some people clearly made a conscious effort to maintain distance from others – a tricky act in that small, crowded area. But others were blissfully unmindful of distancing; it was as if the pandemic was over.

*      *      *

The death of former US secretary of state Colin Powell from COVID complications should temper vaccine overconfidence.

Powell, 84, was fully inoculated, surely with one of the top vaccine brands allowed in the US. Yet he still caught the virus and, worse, succumbed. It must be emphasized that for two years, Powell had battled white blood cell cancer or multiple myeloma, against which even vaccine boosters reportedly work poorly. He also had early-stage Parkinson’s disease.

The government will have to seriously consider proposals from the health professionals, including the vaccine expert panel, for booster shots for the elderly, the immunocompromised and health frontliners.

Dr. Rontgene Solante, a member of the vaccine panel, told us on One News’ “The Chiefs” last Monday that they have recommended boosters for those three adult categories six to eight months from the second dose.

This is based on studies and first-hand experience of countries such as Israel that were the first to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Solante said.

Even China’s Sinovac Biotech is recommending a third dose for its vaccine.

Obviously, the problem is the limited supply of vaccines. The government will face difficult choices in prioritizing the jabs, as vaccination of the general population and minors with comorbidities aged 12 to 17 gets underway. Should some of the doses be diverted to the elderly and immunocompromised adults, since they remain at risk of severe COVID and death even after the second jab? We’ve seen this in the cases of Powell and the late human rights chief Chito Gascon, fully vaccinated but still a COVID casualty at age 57.

*      *      *

Even when enough vaccines finally become available (which might be by Christmas 2022, considering the need for boosters or third doses), we can’t afford to let down our guard.

A fully vaccinated guy I know returned to work this week after surviving COVID. He says he suffered unusually high fever and lost his sense of smell and taste for a few days.

The guy, in his 50s, told officemates that he apparently caught the virus during a family gathering wherein they shared food, drinks and pandemic stories. All of them, he said, were fully vaccinated and felt protected. But after the gathering, three of them ended up with COVID.

Fortunately, all have recovered. But COVID can cause long-term debilitation. After testing negative, the guy must continue taking costly medication for a month to strengthen his heart that has been weakened by the virus. I also know people who continue to suffer from memory loss, shortness of breath and dry cough six months after COVID infection.

So authorities and the public alike must ensure continued adherence to COVID safety protocols.

Another challenge is regulating the mobility of minors. Thanks to the usual confused messaging from the government, there are parents who think they can again let their children loose unsupervised in the streets and public parks.

Stories from countries with advanced vaccination programs should provide cautionary tales. Children of all ages, including those with no comorbidities, are catching the Delta variant whose viral load is said to be frighteningly high, and the kids are getting seriously ill, with some even dying. They are also infecting vulnerable adults.

Metro Manila mayors have issued orders that all children must be accompanied by adults when outdoors. Let’s see if it can be properly enforced.

Sure we can dance with COVID. But it shouldn’t mean throwing caution to the wind.

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