The record-breaking surge in the number of daily COVID-19 cases and its devastating impact on business operations and workers’ livelihoods are among the more visible consequences of the government’s pre-holiday rush to seeming normalcy as the year 2021 was ending.
The rush began in late October as the number of daily cases declined. It was apparently meant to convince the populace that the government had contained the pandemic that had confined many to virtual house arrest, and that everyone could then head for the exits.
The Duterte regime could have welcomed the decline with cautious optimism and with a reminder to the citizenry that the pandemic is still a threat, and everyone should continue to observe established health protocols. Instead it relaxed domestic and foreign travel restrictions, allowed cinemas to operate, and opened resorts and tourist destinations to the public. Almost daily did its spokespersons issue glowing statements about the country’s celebrating “a better 2021 Christmas” that much of the populace interpreted as indications that things were nearly back to normal.
The reservations of the medical community were, as usual, ignored. Public transport vehicles — jeepneys and buses as well the MRT and LRT lines in the National Capital Region (NCR) — were ferrying passengers at almost full capacity in late October and in November, while shoppers thronged the malls and markets, in many instances without social distancing. Christmas and New Year’s eves contributed to the surge in cases as celebrators partied and made merry, assured as they had been that the Philippines was at low risk of further infections.
But scientists in Africa had discovered the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in travelers from Europe in early November. Following the lead of other jurisdictions, the Philippine government banned visitors and travelers from countries where Omicron cases had been reported, but exempted Filipino nationals. A few cases in returning Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) were eventually found in the Philippines, with the numbers spiking as the year was ending. By the second week of the new year, the Omicron variant had become the dominant COVID strain in the country.
From its late 2021 policy of relaxing practically all restrictions, in reaction to the new year surge the Duterte regime has gone to the other extreme of imposing more restrictions on public mobility. But the policies are replete with exemptions and contradictions, and particularly disadvantageous to the poorer sectors of the population.
The “no vaccination, no ride” policy would make sense only if most of the populace were fully vaccinated. But only some 54 percent of the targeted 70 million have been. The policy has led to a rush to vaccination centers by the unvaccinated, but the first shot will not protect one and one’s fellow passengers in a bus or jeepney from infection.
Because it won’t— most of the vaccines require two shots, and need some time to take effect— the impact of the policy on public safety is thus limited only to those who have been fully vaccinated, and whose shots have had the time to develop the antibodies that would protect them.
The same policy assumes that the unvaccinated are against vaccinations. Some indeed are; but most are not. A number of other reasons makes getting vaccinated problematic even if one wants to for such sectors as workers who are paid on a daily basis. For them losing a day’s wages — there are long lines in most of the vaccination centers, where one has to wait for hours — can mean their family’s missing a meal. In belated awareness of that fact, the government now says workers are exempted from the “no vaccination, no ride” policy. Since most of those who take public transport are workers, the policy makes even less sense.
At the same time that it is supposedly being enforced, the checkpoints that have once again sprouted on major thoroughfares are stopping motorcycles, buses and jeepneys in implementation of its sister policy of keeping the unvaccinated at home and arresting those who defy that rule. But they were not checking privately-owned and -driven vehicles, whose occupants, whether vaccinated or not, could come and go as they please.
The policy swing to what amounts to a lockdown by another name is contradicted by the Inter-Agency Task Force’s (IATF) approval, despite the protest of health and medical professionals, of shorter isolation and quarantine periods for asymptomatic and fully vaccinated persons.
Part of the reason for the policy seems to be the shortfall in nurses and other hospital personnel, many of whom have tested positive for COVID-19 as the surge in cases threatens to overwhelm the health system. The shortage is a problem of long-standing primarily because of the pittance in wages and benefits such personnel receive, to augment which they are still fighting for, two years into the pandemic.
In further contradiction of the swing to a veritable lockdown, the Department of Health (DOH) has proposed a stop to the testing and tracing of the close contacts of those found to be COVID positive as long as they are asymptomatic. Healthcare workers, senior citizens and persons with other health problems would instead be prioritized for testing.
The argument is that because “many, many” Filipinos have been vaccinated, the chances of recovery of the COVID- positives’ contacts are supposedly higher and their hospitalization less likely. But the policy is in effect a gamble that most or all of those so exposed to the disease are fully vaccinated. Omicron is also a new coronavirus variant about which not enough information is currently available. Whether this policy makes sense will be determined only by future data on the extent to which it helped reduce the number of cases. The DOH proposal incidentally contradicts Mr. Duterte’s order to improve the health care system’s testing capacity.
In the midst of the confusion, distress and anguish the government response to the COVID-19 surge has generated came an attempt to hype up the Omicron threat as a blessing rather than a curse.
A priest and molecular biologist with a number of involvements in government agencies and activities described the variant as “a blessing” because those infected with it would supposedly develop antibodies that would protect them from other coronavirus variants.
Octa Research fellow Nicanor Austriaco’s optimism was widely reported, but was repudiated by analysts, epidemiologists and medical doctors for glossing over the crisis in the medical workforce and the resulting strain on the hospital system. It did seem to be based more on politics — was he throwing the rabble a bone so they’ll continue to support the administration? — rather than on science. But in their desire for some good news to hold on to, any number of Filipinos could have taken Austriaco’s claims for Bible truth.
Accurate, relevant and verifiable information rather than lockdowns by some other name and other restrictions is in fact what is most needed for the country to survive its present predicament. Without it no exit is possible from the hole the citizenry is in, and from further restrictions, immobility, discrimination and mass confusion.
Well thought-out, pro-active policies based on informed and rigorous analysis could have helped the country navigate the treacherous waters of the pandemic from its very onset in 2020. The need for them was specially evident during the last quarter of 2021, as well as at the present time. But they are precisely what were and are still missing in the far from strategic and purely reactive government response to the pandemic.
First published in BusinessWorld