A year later post-pandemic, what we've learned and what stays

BAR NONE - Ian Manticajon - The Freeman

The last time I wrote about COVID-19 was exactly a year ago this week. I was then attending a national summit on access to justice organized by the Supreme Court with over 200 delegates.

In that column piece, I highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on large gatherings and shared a personal anecdote about the necessity of a COVID-19 antigen test prior to attending the summit. Also, I encouraged everyone to get their COVID-19 booster shots. I likewise touched upon the broader context of COVID-19 management, contrasting the relaxed public health protocols in our country at that time with China's strict zero-COVID policy then in place.

How time flies. China has now relaxed its pandemic measures, and COVID-19 has mutated into new dominant strains that are no longer seen as a threat to the world. Most people have already developed immunity to fight off severe infection, either through vaccines, natural infection, or both. Even the much-touted 'new normal' is nowhere in sight, as we have actually returned to the old normal of pre-pandemic days.

Maybe not all of us feel this way, but like some people, I have learned valuable lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic that could enhance our lives as we move past that horrific period for the world. For one, I have learned the value of masking and hand sanitation in protecting my health.

My default practice is still to wear face masks in public places and even at private gatherings, though I tend to remove it when I feel confident that no one near me is exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory infection. My caution is not due to a fear of contracting COVID-19, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared is no longer a global emergency, but because I have personally experienced the benefits of masking.

I have noticed that since I began wearing masks on occasions and in locations where I feel it necessary, I have not experienced the usual seasonal colds and flu. This is a significant change, as I frequently suffered from these illnesses before the pandemic. Masking and hand hygiene have significantly saved me both time and medical expenses that I would have otherwise incurred from these illnesses.

But perhaps, as a sign that things have returned to normal and most people have reverted to their pre-pandemic ways, I sometimes notice stares or frowns from some individuals when they see me still wearing a mask in the occasions and locations I mentioned earlier. I had hoped that people would learn from the pandemic the value of wearing masks as a preventive measure against infections, even when we are no longer in a global health emergency.

The Department of Health has recently noted a spike in cases of influenza-like illnesses nationwide. Health Undersecretary Eric Tayag said that experts have confirmed several cases were due to COVID-19, influenza A or influenza B. Other countries are also experiencing a rise in respiratory diseases, including most recently, China.

In a statement, the WHO said that since mid-October, northern China has reported an increase in influenza-like illness compared to the same period in the previous three years. On the second week of November, Chinese health authorities reported an increase in incidence of respiratory diseases in the country. The WHO requested additional information from China through the International Health Regulations mechanism.

However, nothing in the WHO’s statement can be interpreted as sounding an alarm. The WHO merely recommends that people continue to follow measures to reduce the risk of respiratory illness. These measures include getting recommended vaccinations, keeping distance from people who are ill, staying home when ill, getting tested and seeking medical care as needed, wearing masks as appropriate, ensuring good ventilation, and regular hand-washing.

In this post-pandemic phase, we must stay watchful. The threat of COVID-19 has significantly lessened, but its reduced presence in the news or public discourse doesn't mean we should sideline the lessons we've learned. It's about finding a balance now --applying what we've learned while moving forward.

May I also take this occasion to remind others to be patient and understanding towards those of us who still choose to wear face masks when we feel it's necessary. Practices like masking and hand hygiene as well as good ventilation should become part of our culture, as I have observed in countries like Taiwan, Japan, and other Asian nations, where they were common even before the pandemic.

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