FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Davao City decided to do away with the face shield. Quezon City is set to follow suit.

We were the only country to mandate face shields. It is one of those excesses committed to compensate for the weakness of our health system.

There is no sound scientific information telling us how many lives were saved requiring people to walk around like astronauts. What we are sure of is that the face shields involved a large expense and produced a whole mountain of plastic waste.

It also produces large profits for companies like Pharmally – enough for its proprietors to splurge on luxury cars.

Over the weekend, jeepney drivers were busy peeling off the plastic dividers installed since last year. Those ugly plastic dividers were installed on orders of our transport officials, not our doctors. There is no evidence they prevented infections from happening. There is evidence they hosted viruses that loved clinging to plastic.

In fact, there is no scientific evidence that pointed to public transport being nodes for infections to spread. There is certainly no evidence that our jeepneys – beautifully designed to allow maximum air circulation – were responsible for infections.

Those plastic dividers, like the face shields, were probably unwarranted to begin with. Out of panic, we accepted the senseless impositions.

While we are at it, the MMDA decided to lift curfew starting today. That, too, is an imposition unsupported by science. We endured this curfew for 19 months.

The curfews controlled movement during that time of the day when there was hardly any movement. This was another redundancy. If the bars, with their enclosed and intimate settings, were the problem, we could have simply ordered them closed at an earlier hour.

One by one, we are peeling away the redundant restrictions that only made the pandemic a bit more difficult to bear. This is dividend for the falling pandemic numbers we have seen the past few weeks.

All of us put in our share in putting this pandemic under control. All of us deserve being rewarded with a little more freedom.

Most people expected the alert level to be downgraded Nov. 1. This did not happen. An unwarranted Level 3 was maintained for two more weeks. The medical experts advising the IATF are responsible for the conservatism characterizing the assignment of alert levels.

This is why so many restrictions still remain even as the whole country has been declared safe. All the numbers relating to the utilization of our medical resources point to a lower alert level. But the doctors, fearing another surge, opted to defy their own criteria.

The same conservatism is responsible for keeping our schools closed. We are one of only a handful of countries keeping the school system closed. This conservatism is inflicting so much harm on our young people. Countries with much higher infection rates have long reopened their schools after ensuring proper health protocols.

The learning setback due to the continued closure of our schools will be permanent. As things stand, we already have among the weakest primary education preparations in the world. Our COVID-19 approach, driven by fear rather than by confidence, will simply magnify the damage.

The surge in infections, driven by the Delta variant, set back our economic recovery. Because of restrictions, some of them unwarranted, domestic economic activity was choked. Our growth target of 6-7 percent was downgraded quite dramatically to 4-5 percent. We will not even meet the downgraded growth expectation if we do not open up our economy.

Unlike in the early months of this year, we now have the vaccine stockpile required to achieve population protection by the end of the year. With well over 100 million doses delivered, and millions more on the way, we have enough weapons to stop a new surge – unless a truly vicious new variant emerges.

Metro Manila is now 85 percent fully vaccinated. The surrounding congested provinces will soon be in a matter of weeks. This region of highest population concentration is near herd immunity.

The experience of nearby Indonesia (and even India) should inspire us. Fresh cases of infection declined rapidly. Their economies have opened up and their children are in schools.

The UK has a smaller population than we have. Yet daily new infections there are many times more than ours. Nevertheless, the UK has fully opened up its economy and the children are back in schools. The difference is that they have a robust health care system capable of absorbing any surge in infection.

We have seen infections dwindle over the past few weeks. But the lifting of restrictions seems to lag way behind. What we have here is an attitude problem.

The IATF seems to be caught in that twilight zone between maintaining a zero-COVID strategy and an approach that treats the virus as endemic. Only a few countries such as New Zealand and China remain firmly entrenched in a zero-COVID strategy. On the other hand, countries like Singapore and Japan have moved to more relaxed restrictions that accept infections as the new reality.

It is costly to maintain a zero-COVID strategy. The damage to the economy and our people’s mental health is tremendous. As infections decline, we face diminishing returns sticking to the same strategy.

At this time, we should approach the pandemic with a more confident attitude. Open the economy and transfer to individuals the greater weight of protecting themselves against the virus. Continue building up our health system while opening the streets to commerce.

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