PH needs greater vigilance against Covid threat



The Manila Times


OUR banner story for Tuesday (November 29) detailed the preparations the Department of Health (DoH) is making for a possible surge in Covid-19 infections caused by a new variant of the virus called Omicron BQ.1. The evident objective of the DoH’s statement on the appearance of this “highly transmissible” variety of the coronavirus was to reassure the public that adequate facilities and measures are in place if an increase in cases occurs — so long as the public does its part by observing safe practices and making sure to receive the Covid-19 vaccination and booster shots. While we appreciate the DoH’s concern and effort to be proactive in its response, we are concerned that these efforts may not be enough to prevent a significant setback in the progress the country has made against Covid-19. There are several factors that suggest the risk is much higher than it appears. First, there is the disturbing outbreak of public unrest in China, where a large part of the population is openly protesting the government’s draconian “zero-Covid” policy. In an effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19, China resorts to strict, large-scale lockdowns — sometimes affecting entire cities — and conducts mandatory mass testing. The lockdowns, however, are seen as oppressive, cutting people off from food supplies, work and attending to basic needs such as seeking medical care for non-Covid related illnesses. The straw that finally broke the camel’s back, so to speak, was a tragic apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi last weekend in which more than 10 people were killed; the strict lockdown in place at the time is being blamed for slowing rescue efforts and preventing some people from escaping the burning building. Since then, unprecedented protests, something not seen in China for more than 30 years, have spread to most major cities despite the Chinese authorities’ efforts to stop them. This presents a problem for the Philippines and other nearby countries because at this point, it seems the Chinese government will have to relax its zero-Covid policy to restore public order. Worse still, the zero-Covid policy does not appear to have been successful; last week, China recorded its highest daily number of new cases, more than 35,000, since the pandemic began nearly three years ago. Increased mobility for the Chinese people virtually guarantees that infected people will unintentionally carry the virus outside the country. And that almost certainly means it will be carried here. With most of our own restrictions now relaxed, there has been a substantial influx of foreign visitors. One of our colleagues who is currently vacationing in the Cebu area took note of the impressive number of tourists — which is obviously good news for the economy — but added another worrying observation: In contrast to Manila, where most people seem to be aware of sensible health practices such as wearing face masks in indoor and crowded areas, in some other parts of the country health protocols are virtually ignored. “I haven’t seen a mask in days,” our colleague reported earlier this week. We simply cannot return to strict Covid-19 protocols, imposing lockdowns and restrictions on mobility and business activity, but neither can we consider the ongoing threat “mild,” as one health expert put it. Maintaining heightened vigilance will help to prevent a situation in which a surge in cases gives us no choice but to impose costly restrictions. There are two measures that the government should take, in our view. First, the national vaccination effort, which has been allowed to slacken to the point that we are now hearing that millions of vaccine doses worth billions of pesos have gone to waste, should be restarted in earnest. Incurring costs to bring vaccines to as many people as possible is justifiable; costs due to simple waste are criminally irresponsible. Second, Covid-19 testing must be increased. The government has never conducted anything that could even remotely be described as “mass testing,” leaving it to the public to self-report infections. Thus it is likely that many more cases of the new and worrisome BQ.1 and other virus variants are already present and undetected. Mass testing may not be sensible, but neither is making it completely optional; the country cannot properly protect itself if the real extent of the threat is unknown.