The new normal

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The immediate past president of the Philippine College of Physicians, pulmonologist Maricar Limpin, arrived at the Cignal TV studios last Thursday – her first in-person interview with us since the pandemic lockdowns.

She agreed to have someone else apply her make-up and fix her hair. Then she faced us on One News channel’s “The Chiefs” with a face mask tucked into the pocket of her white blazer.

There were no hugs or beso-beso even if it was the first time in three years that we met in person.

Instead we waved at each other and I gave a slight bow – nothing like the bowing that we see in K-dramas, it’s simply not part of our culture – but more like a nod of greeting or acknowledgment.

This is the new or post-pandemic normal for the doctor whose field of specialization put her on the front line of the battle against a lethal pathogen that at the height of its virulence attacked the lungs and respiratory system.

Doctors and other health professionals were among the first in our country to die of COVID-19. They were among the first to lose loved ones and friends to the virus.

Many of them who suffered the most virulent form of the disease, pre-vaccine, will probably be among the last to ditch basic health protocols ingrained during the pandemic.

Remembering my personal nightmare with the Alpha strain of COVID-19 pre-vaccine, plus the loss of so many loved ones and dear friends to this horrible disease, I can understand the extra caution of health professionals in easing into the new normal.

*      *      *

I am one of the last persons still avoiding air travel and large crowds. I also continue masking outside the home, and I’m glad to see many people still doing the same including young children, particularly on mass transport.

But I’ve resumed meeting with people outside my household and office bubbles. After three years, I have stopped cutting my own hair and I’ve resumed having my hair trimmed in a salon, although I still bring my own cutting cape. Salons no longer use a neck duster barber brush but simply use the hair dryer to blow away the trimmed hair.

Having returned to in-person TV interviews at the studio, I have allowed the in-house makeup artist to apply communal cosmetics on me again and fix my hair.

Hand hygiene looks here to stay; most establishments have retained their alcohol dispensers, and people continue to carry mini-alcohol bottles in their purses. I still avoid handshakes as much as possible.

A survey conducted by Social Weather Stations Inc. from Dec. 10 to 14 last year showed that 93 percent of 1,200 adults polled were hopeful that the worst of COVID-19 was over, but 78 percent were still worried about catching the virus.

*      *      *

Is the COVID nightmare over?

“As far as I am concerned, I think it’s ended,” Limpin told us, noting that nearly all their patients these days are seeking treatment for non-COVID afflictions.

But she said she would still keep wearing masks as she noted that there is always the possibility of another emerging infection turning into a killer pandemic.

The COVID-causing SARS-CoV-2, after all, is a cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. SARS broke out in early 2003 in southeastern China and infected around 8,000 people in 26 countries, killing nearly 800 people, before fading away.

By May this year or around mid-year at the latest, the World Health Organization is set to downgrade COVID as an infectious disease, to the level of the seasonal flu.

“We’re just waiting for the WHO to declare na endemic na ang COVID-19,” Doctor Limpin told us. “But I think we’re already there.”

The question is whether the Philippines has learned its lessons from COVID and is now better prepared to deal with the next pandemic.

Limpin says preparedness calls for more than the creation of a Center for Disease Control. The public health infrastructure is still inadequate and the country’s hemorrhage of health professionals continues.

“We need to strengthen our health system,” Limpin said.

*      *      *

Global health experts have warned that there is a high demand for health professionals all over the world, with developing countries losing their health workforce to the affluent states and finding it tough to replace the loss.

The health brain drain is compounded by the inadequacy of our health facilities and services. The Universal Health Care Law is so underfunded it has to be rolled out over several years.

This year’s public health budget is P296.3 billion, just slightly higher than the P267.8 billion for government pensions, retirement and terminal leave benefits. The health allocation includes P420 million for the creation of a Virology Science and Technology Institute of the Philippines, with financing for seven research and development projects.

The weakness of our education system, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM is compounding our lack of health professionals.

At the start of the pandemic, we had to send infected tissue samples to Australia to test for SARS-CoV-2. We had to import nearly all of the supplies needed for pandemic response, from RT-PCR test kits to disposable face masks to personal protective equipment as well as those controversial face shields.

We never managed to put in place a nationally inter-operable digital COVID-19 contact tracing system. StaySafe.PH was a disaster.

Later, a local biotech company developed and rolled out a reliable RT-PCR test, which became the most affordable on the market.

But we still lack health facilities, and public and private hospitals alike continue to lose health professionals to other countries. Our genome sequencing capability for pathogens is still acutely limited.

As of yesterday, the Department of Health’s COVID-19 tracker showed that there were 8,611 active cases nationwide, with 227 new ones, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic in 2020 to 4,080,199, with 66,332 deaths.

While people wait for the arrival of the next-generation bivalent vaccines against Omicron and its subvariants, millions of primary doses are set to expire at the end of the month.

Are we ready for the next pandemic?

Oh well, we know enough to clean our hands with 70 percent alcohol and wear face masks.

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