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Gov’t asked to regulate borders to prevent surge from Omicron variant


By Luz Wendy T. Noble, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES should tighten border patrols and boost its vaccination drive to prevent another infection surge that could come from a potentially more contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, analysts said on Monday.

Failure to do so could force the government to enforce strict lockdowns again that could end up being too late, they said.

The risks from the new variant from Africa remained unknown, but it could potentially cause another infection wave, Moody’s Analytics said.

“First, will policy makers in the region respond by accelerating vaccination programs?” Moody’s Analytics Chief Asia-Pacific Economist Steven Cochrane said in a note. He added that countries including Myanmar, Laos, Indonesia, India, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam have vaccinated fewer than 65% of their citizens.

The Philippines has fully vaccinated 40.58% of its population, based on data from the Johns Hopkins University. The government has launched a three-day national vaccination drive until Wednesday as it targets to vaccinate nine million Filipinos.

The World Health Organization has called the Omicron variant a variant of concern, citing its likelihood of becoming more contagious.

“Adequate public health facilities, particularly intensive care units and isolation beds would alleviate the pressure on the healthcare system,” Mr. Cochrane said separately in an e-mail. “Countries simply cannot let down their guard. They must learn from the past.”

Based on previous infection surges, border closures might help contain the latest coronavirus variant, said Nicholas Antonio T. Mapa, a senior economist at ING Bank N.V. Manila.

“The worst-case scenario is a potential return to hard lockdowns and as experience has shown, prevention is always less costly than the cure,” he said in a separate note.

“We can take comfort in the knowledge that the Philippines posted a remarkable 7.1% year-on-year growth in the third quarter despite the presence of the Delta strain,” he added. But such growth also came from an 11.6% contraction a year earlier.

Philippine economic output expanded by 4.9% in the nine months to September, which was within the government’s 4-5% goal. Last year, the economy shrank by a record 9.6%.

Mr. Mapa said the government should be aware of the potential threats from the Omicron variant after it relaxed quarantines amid decreasing coronavirus infections.

“We do know that higher cases generally lead to slower economic output and a possible unwanted detour for our nascent recovery,” he added.

Active coronavirus infections in the Philippines rose by 665 to 16,289 on Monday, the Health department said in a bulletin. Active cases reached almost 200,000 at the height of the Delta-induced surge in September.

An Omicron-induced infection wave could affect the deployment of Filipino workers overseas amid potentially more border closures, Michael L. Ricafort, chief economist at Rizal Commercial Banking Corp., said in a Viber message.

Cash remittances from migrant Filipino workers that fuel the country’s economy through increased household spending have risen by 5.6% to $23.117 billion as of end-September from a year earlier.

“The Omicron variant could also potentially add to the global supply chain disruptions in terms of production and shipments,” Mr. Ricafort said.

Fully vaccinated people from countries not required to get a Philippine visa may enter the country from Dec. 1 to 15, the government said on Friday, only to suspend the plan on Monday because of the threat from the Omicron variant.

The Philippines last week started suspending flights from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Mozambique, where the virus mutation that is potentially more contagious is present.

The variant was first discovered in South Africa and has since been detected in Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic and Hong Kong.

On Sunday, the Philippines also suspended flights from Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy.

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