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Just a step ahead

STARLINE-FREEPIK

At the rate COVID mutations are outpacing medical advances intended to eliminate the virus, being always just a step ahead of the next surge may no longer be enough. Mutations can result in greater transmission, and greater resistance to present vaccines and medicines. COVID-19 is far from over, and the situation can still worsen. And the only things in the arsenal now are lockdowns, mandatory use of plastic face shields, and more restrictions on people’s movement.

The Philippine Star reported a week ago that Quezon City, the largest locality in Metro Manila in terms of land area and population, had been registering less than 30 new cases of COVID-19 per day, citing data from the OCTA Research Group. But OCTA also said, “The challenge now for Quezon City is to sustain the low number of COVID cases through better pandemic management using bio-surveillance, testing, contact tracing, localized lockdowns and the cooperation of residents.”

On Sept. 9, a little over three months ago, the Makati City government recorded a peak of 3,298 active cases in the city. This eventually dropped to a low of only 18 cases by Dec. 10. As of this writing, however, the report for Dec. 14 indicated 24 active cases, up six cases in four days. In absolute terms, six is a small number. But in terms of percentage, the case count was up 30% in four days. To me, this is a cause for concern.

At the national level, the case count continues to go down. Only 235 cases were reported on Dec. 14, the lowest count in nearly 19 months of the pandemic. The total number of active cases nationwide is more than 10,500. While this is relatively low, the worry is Omicron’s transmission rate. Some studies indicate one Omicron case can infect up to 10 people. Delta, which caused the last surge, can infect up to eight.

The World Health Organization (WHO) had warned that Omicron was spreading at an unprecedented rate and urged countries to act. Early data suggests Omicron can be resistant to vaccines and is more transmissible than the Delta variant. The Philippine Star report quoted WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as saying that the strain had been reported in 77 countries and had “probably” spread to most nations undetected “at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant.”

In The Netherlands, primary schools will close earlier than previously scheduled given the surge in infections and hospital admissions. Britain, meanwhile, was reported to have confirmed what was thought to be the world’s first Omicron death. Countries have been urged to act swiftly to rein in transmission and to protect their health systems. Complacency is seen as the enemy.

If cases continue to trend up again, like in Makati City for instance, I am unsure what else the government is prepared to do other than the usual lockdowns, restrictions, and the mandatory use of plastic face shields while in public. The mandatory use of face masks is still in force to date, even while restrictions on people’s movement have been eased. How should we further improve our pandemic management?

Europe has reportedly recorded 62% of the world’s total COVID cases in the week, while the five countries with the world’s highest infection rates were all European. As a consequence, The Netherlands followed other European nations in reintroducing restrictions. France on Tuesday was reported to have registered 63,405 new coronavirus cases — its highest daily total since April — while scientists have predicted the true number already infected with Omicron in Britain could be as high as 200,000 a day.

In his column last week in the Philippine Star, economist Gerardo P. Sicat noted that “the Omicron variant presents a new obstacle in the complicated pathway toward the conquest of the pandemic.” He also noted that the present decline in the number of new cases in the Philippines was “not a guarantee that a reversal [would] not happen.”

“The worst impact of the pandemic might have taken already a heavy cost to the economy. Such costs can be tracked by noting the decline in the GDP, the extent of unemployment, and the growth in the size of the fiscal deficit… All these can be observed by the presence of widening poverty in our midst. The improvement of the overall picture in the struggle against the pandemic cannot hide the enormous challenge to efforts to get the economic recovery to move forward,” he said. “The focus on the future certainly calls for pushing the possibilities of economic recovery,” he added.

And this brings us back to OCTA’s point that the “challenge” now, in light of the Omicron-fueled surge abroad, is how “to sustain the low number of COVID cases [locally] through better pandemic management using bio-surveillance, testing, contact tracing, localized lockdowns and the cooperation of residents.” Moving forward, in fact, all temporary ad hoc interventions may have to be made permanent, to prepare against future pandemics.

In 2013, about eight years ago, the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago filed Senate Bill 1573 on national preparedness and response to public health emergencies. The bill never became law. Looking back, if it was legislated early on, then we may have been better prepared to deal with COVID-19. Maybe. Just the same, it is not too late to review that bill for consideration.

While interventions since 2020 have been made, all this are ad hoc or temporary. SB 1573 intended the drafting of a National Health Strategy for Public Health Emergencies, and the creation of permanent government units dedicated to such work, including a Task Force on Public Emergencies and a Medical Reserve Corps.

To an extent, maybe Miriam’s proposed model is already outdated, if not already in place under the present system governing the COVID-19 response. However, there is value in her idea of actually institutionalizing a national strategy for public health emergencies, including pandemics; creating and maintaining a reserve corps of medical professionals and health workers; and putting in place a permanent government unit for such concerns. More important, however, is to ensure that such a system will always be protected from corruption.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council

matort@yahoo.com

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