The failure is not in border control

BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon - The Freeman

Do hard borders work? This was the question raised by several peer-reviewed studies and some quarters of the media in Europe early this year about the global coronavirus response.

In the Philippines, we can ask a similar question: Do the IATF’s strict protocols for returning overseas Filipinos work? To a certain extent, yes, but barely enough to keep our number of COVID-19 cases down.

Strict, sweeping quarantine protocols at ports of entry may work in the immediate term. But it is poor policy if it is not adaptive to the situation on the ground; if it ignores the enormous economic and psychological costs.

Travel restrictions are important; there is no question about that. It’s supposed to buy us time to strengthen our infection control measures and healthcare system. But keep it there any longer and your one-size-fits-all solution will not be sustainable.

In fact, your one-size-fits-all solution is actually grounded more on the fear that the more infectious variants abroad could unravel the deep weaknesses in our pandemic response. The IATF’s clash with Cebu Province on entry protocols, for example, has become a convenient distraction from the long-festering problems that hound our national response to the crisis; lack of testing, poor contact tracing, and a snail-paced vaccination drive.

We don’t want the more dangerous variants from abroad to take hold and gain traction in our communities. But whether we like it or not, foreign variants like the Delta variant which was first detected in India, will eventually creep into our borders, if it has not already.

We have long known what works; consistent adherence to public health protocols on masking and distancing, good hygiene practices, as well as early detection, testing, tracing, and isolation of cases coupled with prompt, targeted lockdowns in the event of a local surge.

So why then is the IATF so gung-ho for a one-size-fits-all solution on port of entry protocols? Instead of focusing on increasing the capacity of our hospitals and public health services, we are stuck debating about which border control measure is more effective.

India saw deaths in the hundreds of thousands within a span of three months, coupled with a collapse of its healthcare system. These happened not because India was lax in its border and quarantine controls. Lest we forget, the now-dreaded Delta variant was first observed in India.

Weeks prior to when the Delta variant wreaked havoc in India, the country relaxed from within too soon. Campaign rallies and religious gatherings were held left and right all over the nation of 1.4 billion people. India’s numbers were in fact so low around the last quarter of last year that people acted as if the virus was no longer a threat.

Those who call for stricter, sweeping entry protocols like to cite model countries like Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Vietnam. These countries impose 14-day quarantines on inbound travelers. But the success of these countries was mainly because after imposing hard lockdowns, they were able to keep their cases low through masking, distancing, testing, and tracing.

They have decisive yet rational border control measures. Their doctors and other experts know how to work with people on the ground and do not act like they know everything. As a result, the people know that all of them are part of the reason why they have controlled their COVID-19 cases. There is a greater degree of community cooperation, a sense of taking care of each other.

These are the things we should be focusing on.

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