Mr. President, are we fully prepared for the 2019 novel coronavirus?

Published January 31, 2020, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin



RJ Nieto

Social media is rife with calls for an entry ban on arrivals from Mainland China, the epicenter of the 2019-nCoV outbreak.

While the World Health Organization so far advises against such entry bans, the novel coronavirus outbreak has yet to show any sign of abating. I hope that it ends soon, but we have to be reasonably prepared for the worst.

Hope, after all, is NOT a logical strategy.

Particularly, do we have enough quarantine facilities to handle the crisis, and do we have provisions for the creation of additional ones?

The government may have enough facilities to quarantine a few thousand suspected cases, but what contingency measures are in place if matters escalate further? Is the government ready for a scenario where, say, the infection rate for the rest of the Chinese mainland reaches the level of Wuhan?

If that happens, then it’s logical to ban the entry of those from mainland China. But viruses do not care about citizenship, so what do we do about China-based Filipinos who wish to come home? What will the government do if things go so bad that we have to repatriate the 170,000 Filipino souls in China, Macau, and Hong Kong?

We can’t issue an entry ban on our own citizens, of course, but we can’t just let them exit our airports right away: we have to quarantine them first as a precaution.

Australia, for example, decided to repatriate 600 citizens, but not after a two-week quarantine on  Christmas Island, 2,000 kilometers away from the Australian mainland.

That’s 600 China-based Australians, a small number compared to 170,000 China-based Filipinos, if and when mass repatriation happens.

During the 2014 ebola crisis, the government used Caballo island near Corregidor to quarantine 133 Filipino peacekeepers repatriated from Liberia. But at barely over a kilometer long, just a few hundred meters wide, and containing five small buildings or so, the facility is incapable of handling that many.

We are not just talking about more buildings, logistics, large quantities of supplies, and a skilled workforce are needed to run these facilities.

The Department of Health has so far taken a woefully reactionary approach as it holds press conference after press conference, telling us about how many suspected cases exist, without informing us about what to do in case a full-blown crisis erupts.

The President may want to call an emergency cabinet meeting and discuss not just what to do right now, but also what the government will do if and when the situation in China drastically worsens.

Mr. President, I strongly but politely suggest that you ask epidemiologists in the Health Department to give an honest (READ: APOLITICAL) assessment of the situation. Please ask someone other than Sec. Francisco Duque because his statements since his appointment have shown that he’s more of a politician than a doctor.

Please assess the likelihood of a full-blown crisis that may require mass repatriation because if we want to become a developed country someday, then we should encourage all levels of government to start thinking like one.

If the probability of a full-blown crisis is significant, then the Health Department must quickly come up not only with a list of standard operating procedures in the event of mass repatriation but also with a list of facilities required to handle such an event.

If a facility like Wuhan’s coronavirus hospital may be needed, please ask Congress for a stand-by appropriation because even the Office of the President’s multi-billion-peso confidential and intelligence funds may not be enough to fund the facilities. Of course, Public Works and Highways should be ready for such an eventuality.

Call the Air Force and various airlines for flight arrangements, and direct the Civil Aviation Authority to come up with a plan for arriving aircraft from China. Will we let aircraft land in Ninoy Aquino International, or should we divert them somewhere else to avoid the risk of infection in the very densely populated metropolis?

The only sparsely populated island near Metro Manila that has a runway (or at least, provisions for one), is Corregidor, so please ask the Transportation Department about how to get Kindley Field’s defunct three-kilometer runway up and running. If somebody has a better idea, go for it.

Your Economics team (Finance, NEDA, DOLE, DTI, and DBM) should help find funding sources for all of these, plus livelihood for these repatriated Filipinos after they leave the quarantine facility. TESDA may also jump in if reskilling is necessary.

And please instruct your communications people to do their job right, once and for all, although I sincerely am not very optimistic about this one.

I’m not smart enough to list everything down, but I’m confident that the hundreds of brains in Malacañang can figure the rest out.

If the novel coronavirus crisis worsens to epic proportions, then with these, we would already know what to do. If it doesn’t, then we can be prepared for the next one.

With more Filipinos traveling abroad for leisure and work, we all know that this won’t be the last disease that will haunt us.

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