The Philippines is currently the highest in Southeast Asia when it comes to active  COVID-19 cases. Indonesia may have registered the highest total number of cases overall, but their 37,083 active cases as of July 22 makes them only second in the region to our 45,646. 

With our numbers climbing, too many of our hospitals are at the limit of their capabilities. A week or so ago, Makati Medical Center, the two St. Luke’s Medical Centers in Quezon City and BGC, the Philippine General Hospital, San Lazaro Hospital, and some other hospitals declared that they were nearing or were at the limits of their capacity to handle COVID-19 patients. This week, more hospitals joined the list, such as Bataan General Hospital and Medical Center, Antipolo City Medical Hospital, and the National Kidney and Transplant Institute. Clearly, we need to improve the capacity of our healthcare system, before we can even begin to rebuild our embattled economy.  

Ronald U. Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo School of Government, pointed out in a May, 2020, The Diplomat article that while the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the weaknesses of our healthcare and social protection systems, it can also be an opportunity to strengthen and improve them through innovations and reforms.  

In another paper, “COVID-19: Navigating Inclusive Recovery towards the New Normal,” Mendoza uses the term “building back better” as an anchor for his points about healthcare, the economy, and the new normal. One aspect is about more effective test, trace, and treat programs, and building up the healthcare system to handle surges of cases. Another aspect of “build back better” is how an organized strategy for easing quarantine measures and restructuring business operations, in conjunction with healthcare guidelines and assistance from government, can lessen the economic impact of minimized or nonexistent business operations during the quarantine period.  

Some of the measures we have filed and are working on deal with how we can “build back better.” For instance, in the Bayanihan to Recover As One Bill (SB 1564), which is awaiting final reading in the Senate, streamlined accreditation of PCR testing kits and the facilitation of prompt testing on suspected and probable COVID-19 cases have been included. The measure will also enable the hiring of medical technologists and other personnel to augment our testing centers.

Another new bill we have filed is the Crushing COVID Bill (SB 1535), a counterpart to the version filed by Rep Janette Loreto-Garin and which passed at the House in June. The measure aims to establish PCR testing protocols for Filipino workers with co-morbidities such as diabetes, and persons entering Philippine territory. Philhealth will shoulder the cost for the tests.

Finally, we have the eHealth System and Services Bill (SB 1472), which will establish policies and a legal framework for telemedicine, e-prescriptions, and other similar eHealth services throughout the country to make it easier for people to practice social distancing,   

I mentioned in an upcoming episode of Open Bar, the podcast series of the IBP Eastern and Western Visayas Region that while we have exhibited significant improvements in our response to the pandemic, such as with our testing capabilities,  there are still many areas where we should need to do better. For example, testing and contact tracing should be done in real time. The sooner we can contact people and tell them to isolate, the more we can limit the spread of COVID-19.

Thankfully, new anti-COVID czars have been designated to help BCDA President and CEO Vivencio “Vince” Dizon run the “T3”  (trace, treat, and test) program—namely, Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong as the chief for contact tracing, Public Works Secretary Mark Villar for building and upgrading government facilities as quarantine centers, and Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega to monitor treatment and hospital capacities nationwide. May their drive and experience be our part of our arsenal in fighting this pandemic.

We need to close some huge gaps in our healthcare responses to the pandemic. No matter whether or not we have well-organized economic stimulus plans, if we do not have an effective foundation for it based on our healthcare strategies, then we are hobbled from the very beginning.

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Senator Sonny Angara has been in public service for 15 years-9 years as Representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and 6 as Senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws.  He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.