Janette Garin and Gregorio Pio Catapang
Janette Garin and Gregorio Pio Catapang (Photo from DOH, DND)

Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), or Ebola hemorrhagic fever, which the World Health Organization (WHO) describes as “a severe, often fatal illness in humans” is not contagious until the infected person develops symptoms.

But why take the unnecessary risk of infection anyway by socializing with the very people you’ve quarantined? And yet that’s precisely what Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gregorio Catapang and Department of Health (DOH) Acting Secretary Janette Garin did by visiting Caballo Island early this week.

WHO Fact Sheet 103, dated September 2014, declares that “the incubation period, that is, the time interval from infection with the virus to the onset of symptoms, is two to 21 days. Humans are not infectious until they develop symptoms.”

The first symptoms are a “sudden onset of fever, fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding (e.g. oozing from the gums, blood in the stools). Laboratory findings include low white blood cell and platelet counts and elevated liver enzymes.”

On the average, about half of those infected are likely to die from the disease, although the fatality rate has ranged from a low of 25 percent to a high of 90 percent in past outbreaks.

There have been other outbreaks, but the current outbreak of the disease in West Africa, WHO continues, “is the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976. There have been more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined. It has also spread between countries starting in Guinea then spreading across land borders to Sierra Leone and Liberia, by air (1 traveller only) to Nigeria, and by land (1 traveller) to Senegal.”

The most severely affected countries are Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The soldiers currently in quarantine on Caballo Island returned from Liberia on a peacekeeping mission with the United Nations. Putting them in quarantine for 21 days was correct policy, since it takes a maximum of 21 days for those who have caught the disease to develop the symptoms of Ebola.

What is at stake is the possibility of an outbreak in the Philippines, which already has problems with controlling the inflow of people travelling from affected countries, including but not limited to Overseas Filipino Workers, who might be Ebola carriers. Several doctors’ and health advocacy groups have warned that the country’s health system might not be prepared for the immense strain on it that containing an outbreak would impose.

So the question remains, given these possibilities, and with the health of the nation at stake: why risk contracting and communicating the disease by visiting the soldiers in quarantine?

AFP Chief of Staff General Gregorio Catapang and Acting DOH Secretary Janette Garin
did risk it—and for no urgent reason except, according to them, to cheer up the soldiers quarantined on Caballo Island. During their visit, the pair—dare we call them the dynamic duo—did not use any personal protective equipment as mandated by Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) protocol.

Their visit to Caballo has been variously described as “reckless” and “irresponsible,” with “careless misjudgment” being among the less outraged reactions. What they did, said former AFP Chief of Staff and now Congressman Rodolfo Biazon, was precisely that. In addition to the possibility, as remote as it may be, of contracting the disease, it sends a message to the families of the quarantined soldiers that they too can visit them, said Biazon.

But that’s precisely the point, the idea being to get on the good side of both the soldiers and their kin, as well as, not incidentally, the public. The phrase “publicity stunt” comes easily to mind. Could Garin and Catapang have actually been entertaining the idea of allowing the soldiers’ relatives to visit? As outrageous as that may seem, it turns out that the AFP was even thinking of giving the media a tour of Caballo, which the public and media reaction to his and Garin’s visit there has prompted Catapang to cancel.

Albert Einstein once declared that God doesn’t play dice with the universe, but it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that, while neither is an Einstein, both Catapang and Garin were doing precisely that: gambling, if not with the universe, with the health of the people of this country.

Those at a loss to account for this exercise in mindless irresponsibility need not look too far, however.

A former representative of Iloilo’s first district and another ally of Benigno Aquino III, Garin was made DOH Acting Secretary on the heels of a scandal that allegedly involves Secretary Enrique T. Ona, who has been made to take a leave of absence. And yet Garin herself has been accused of wrongdoing, among them allegations that while still in Congress, she was involved in the diversion of P5 billion in pork barrel funds. Her appointment was, if anything, political to begin with.

Catapang, on the other hand, who upon his appointment made much of lecturing the soldiers under his command to stay focused and not be involved in politics, has himself been involved in politics, by, among other acts, weighing in on calls for Aquino III’s resignation.

That’s a clearly political act, and so was Garin’s calling a press conference earlier to deny the allegations against her, which the National Bureau of Investigation is currently looking into.

Were the seemingly unlikely duo of Catapang and Garin in pursuit of unmistakably political aims when they visited the troops in Caballo? Was Catapang putting himself in the limelight and earning brownie points among his constituents in the soldiery? Was Garin diverting media attention from the NBI investigation while at the same time assuring herself of media mileage in case she decides to run for office in 2016 when they visited Caballo?

Everything in this country is after all political. Note that the criticism of Garin and Catapang, no matter how valid, have assumed political proportions, with some members of the so-called opposition getting on their high horses to assail the duo for their irresponsibility, as if they themselves have not been as irresponsible and even criminal.

Politics has at various times been described as this country’s preferred form of entertainment. But Ebola isn’t among the things the politicians—include Catapang and Garin among them—should be trifling with. If what Catapang and Garin did is any indication of the extent to which we can rely on the good sense of the bureaucracy, trust the politicians and bureaucrats to see to it that Ebola does enter the country.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from DOH and DND.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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