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Opinion

Academic pandemic

SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. - The Philippine Star

Many are crooning that the end is near. You’d think there is an epidemic of My Way in our karaoke bars and homes. The news that the Omicron strain is “milder” has been encouraging, what with its higher virulence overwhelming Delta in the battle of the variants. It’s supposed to herald COVID-19’s transition to endemicity.

I don’t know if this “living with the virus” thinking isn’t dangerous. How many times have we heard the dingbat suggestion to purposely get exposed para matapos na? We assume that it’s Omicron (the government won’t or can’t tell us so we apply the “looks like a duck” test). But genome sequencing has officially confirmed only 43 such cases out of thousands infected. Intentional exposure may yet hook you a lurking Delta. If so, tapos ka na nga. This mentality places you directly in harm’s way.

If we’ve learned anything so far, it’s that we haven’t learned enough so far. COVID-19 has evolved, mutated and become more resistant in even less time it took to develop a vaccine. If the virus should flame out, will it happen just like that? It’ll take years. Other infectious diseases were supposed to be extinct as the Dodo. But someone forget to tell them. Malaria, the measles, polio, among others, are still very much around with their debilitating ways.

Closing our eyes and wishing it away is a fatigue play, a defense mechanism with people dropping left and right. COVID-19, even if “milder” Omicron, will still overwhelm the health system due to sheer number. So, keep those eyes open. Facts and evidence arm us for informed decisions as the government insists on their default lockdown/alert level response.

South Africa took the calculated risk of no lockdowns, no contact tracing and no curfews. It is too early, though, to base our own policy on their experience as country specific demographics hinder identical outcomes.

From science to sayang. First dose vaccinations were sluggish as we approached the saturation point of the willing last year-end. On Dec. 28, we recorded only 70,092 first doses. But Thursday, January 6 saw the number climb to 118,026, a healthy increase of more than 50 percent. We peaked at over 500,000 first doses in early November.

Per Resbakuna DOH, there were 570,579 second doses last Jan. 6. Many are rushing to get their boosters. A lot of good that would do, with numbers increasing exponentially and the jab’s effects activating only after a time.

Vaccines are the best defense against COVID-19, later to mutate into “against severe COVID-19”. Indefinite vaccine protection became six months only then down to a 3-month shelf life. To a populace experiencing breakthrough infections at a startling pace, the mantra is fast losing its soundness.

The only absolute is relying on ourselves. Step up the masking – the higher the quality the better. Ramp up the testing to facilitate early detection, allowing us to isolate and avoid the spread. Distance and sanitize. Exercise.

Professor RRD. The publicized contretemps between the two top lawyers of the Executive Branch – President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and Justice Secretary Menardo Guevara – provides us with a window for legal education.

Today’s lesson is on the accountability of hotel quarantine facilities in controlling the recalcitrant behavior of checked-in guests. PRRD believes that hotel personnel cannot physically enforce quarantine detention against guests who insist on leaving. Secretary Guevara would disagree.

Hotels employ their own security personnel with a range of responsibilities. These include keeping order and other similar duties to ensure the safety and security of guests, visitors, staff and property within hotel premises. Acting as detention officers, however, is not part of their job description.

For analogy, see the hospital-patient context. If you were to leave confinement upon recovery, no one can stop you. Congress even criminalized detention of patients for non-payment to emphasize that hospitals don’t have the power to restrain them should they wish to leave.

It’s not surprising for PRRD to have expressed his view, given that government retains its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Hence, it is arguably coercion for hotel (or even hospital) personnel to employ force to impede the free movement of citizens. Now if the conduct being restrained amounts to a criminal act, then even non-law enforcement personnel may intervene by way of citizen’s arrests. Otherwise, only the government has the authority to stop you.

Sec. Guevara points out that R.A. 11332, with its penal provisions, makes it a duty for those tasked to respond to the pandemic to cooperate. Who are so tasked? Under the law, “response refers to the implementation of specific activities to control further spread of infection, outbreaks or epidemics and prevent re-occurrence. It includes verification, contact tracing, rapid risk assessment, case measures, treatment of patients, risk communication, conduct of prevention activities, and rehabilitation. “

The law “seeks to expand collaborations beyond traditional public health partners to include others ... involved in the disease surveillance and response, such as agricultural agencies, veterinarians, environmental agencies, law enforcement entities and transportation and communication agencies, among others.” On this basis, the argument goes, hotels can ensure their guests observe quarantine rules. Failing to do so makes the hotels criminally liable.

How hotels fit into this rather specific category of disease surveillance and response partners, the government hasn’t fully explained. It’s also pretty nebulous a basis to empower hotel security against guests. Hence, the President’s point. Absent a definitive prohibition in the law itself, it’s a stretch for hotels to be held accountable when free individuals refuse to observe their quarantines. Hotels do have the duty to report such incidents and, if needed, seek the help of authorities. But accreditation as a quarantine facility does not automatically deputize hotel personnel as law enforcement agents.

This episode highlights the weakness in our COVID-19 response framework on quarantine enforcement. Senator Migz Zubiri’s Senate Bill 2470 would precisely amend R.A. 11332 to criminalize quarantine violations.

That he has to provide for the crime and its penalty at all proves – res ipsa loquitur – that jumping quarantine is not presently punished by law. By extension, the President is right. Though hotels’ lips are not sealed, their hands are tied.

OMICRON

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