Over a year after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic caught the world by surprise, countries and institutions – both local and international – continue to grapple with impact of the health crisis.
Despite the challenges, certain institutions continue to cope with the changes brought by the pandemic. In the country, for instance, the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) has been at the forefront in the fight against COVID-19 – revolutionizing how to respond to a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude.
In celebration of the World Red Cross Day on Saturday, May 8, the PRC reiterated its “unwavering and unstoppable” commitment to serve the most vulnerable especially during these very challenging times.
In this year’s commemoration, PRC said that it continues to “live up” to the principles behind the foundation of World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day.
For this year’s celebration, there are 192 national societies worldwide that celebrate the Red Cross’ #unstoppable commitment to make the “world a safer and more peaceful place.” The Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have gone a long way from 158 years ago, when the Red Cross was established by Henry Dunant following the battle of Solferino. Now, with almost 200 Red Cross National Societies provide humanitarian services not only during times of war but also in disasters, emergencies, and pandemics.
In its 74 years of service, the PRC said that it has been “unstoppable in fulfilling its mandate as auxiliary to the government in alleviating the suffering and uplifting the dignity of the most vulnerable.” PRC, through its volunteers, logistics, and information technology, has been always “first, always ready, and always there to respond to every disaster or emergency” – be it a typhoon, earthquake, fire, road crash, blood request, health crisis, and even the pandemic.
The year that was
The year 2020 was indeed a very challenging and “tumultuous” year – not only for PRC but for almost all institutions and governments across the globe.
Last year, among the major efforts of PRC included the conduct of response operations for those affected by the Mindanao Earthquakes, Typhoon Tisoy (Kammuri), and Typhoon Ursula (Phanfone) in 2019. It also supported individuals affected by Typhoon Ompong (Mangkhut) which hit the country in 2018 and the Marawi Siege in 2017.
PRC noted that the rumblings of Taal Volcano which started just days after the New Year was an “ominous foreshadowing for what was to come.” While experiencing the consequences of a volcano’s violent awakening was a first for many Filipinos, it was not something new to PRC Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Richard J. Gordon.
Serving as the Olongapo City mayor when Mt. Pinatubo unleashed its wrath in 1991, Gordon was on top of the situation and was leading the efforts to respond to an unprecedented disaster.
Under Gordon’s instructions, PRC upgraded logistics and swiftly deployed assistance to thousands of displaced families in Batangas. Much-needed non-food items such as surgical masks, tarpaulin, mosquito nets, hygiene kits, and tents as temporary shelter were also distributed at that time as well as the provision of psychological first aid to affected individuals.
It was also around this time the news of a deadly virus in Wuhan started to set off alarms about the potential world wide impact of the spread of this disease. PRC’s response was to source masks and personal protective equipment and distribute these to the health workers, returning residents and other “at risk” members of the population.
After analyzing the 1918 pandemic, Gordon started to look at the resources available in the Philippines to face this pandemic and he was appalled upon learning that all the Philippines had were the manual testing machines of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM).
This led him to push for a testing protocol to be conducted at the PRC. Despite limitations due to lockdowns and absence of regular flights, PRC found ways to transport the test kits and the other equipment critically needed and after 10 days, the first laboratory was built.
On April 14, 2020, PRC inaugurated of the first molecular testing laboratory in the country. Soon after, test labs got their “baptism of fire” as tens of thousands of returning residents had to be tested in addition to the tens of thousands who had never left the country but similarly had to be tested.
A little over six months after the opening of the first laboratory, PRC had performed one million tests in November. By the end of the year, PRC accounted for about 25 percent of all the tests done in the country with its 14 molecular laboratories in Metro Manila, Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao.
While PRC has been leading the COVID-19 testing in the country, Gordon felt it was enough because he wanted testing to be made available to as many of the population that needed it.
Believing that testing has to “democratized” and be made more affordable, Gordon sought the help of scientists from the University of Illinois and University of the Philippines (UP) to introduced and developed saliva reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing in the country.
Amid all these efforts, PRC continued to initiate various COVID-19 responses to “alleviate human suffering and uplift human dignity” which included the distribution of facemasks, Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), and cadaver bags; the establishment of the 1158 hotline of PRC; and provision of negative pressure ambulance services, cash grants, food packs, hot meals, tents, hygiene kits, water, hand washing facilities, and psychosocial support.
Despite having its hands full with its COVID-19 response, PRC continued to vaccinate for Measles-Rubella and Polio – reaching over a million children vaccinated in one year.
When the country was hit by Typhoons Rolly and Ulysses in October and November last year, PRC’s activities did not stop.
PRC Immediately deployed its Humanitarian Caravan in Catanduanes and in Bicol to respond to the impact of the strongest typhoon in 2020. Using satellite phones, Gordon was the first in the country to establish communication lines in Catanduanes – enabling PRC to assess the situation and identify immediate needs.
Gordon also flew to Catanduanes to personally inspect the area and immediately provided food and non food items to affected families. Due to limited access to Catanduanes at that time, PRC sent off the M/V PRC Amazing Grace in November to deliver thousands of non-food items to help those whose were affected by the disaster.
PRC also provided help to those who were affected by Typhoon Ulysses in the provinces of Cagayan and Isabela. A humanitarian caravan to Cagayan and Isabela was deployed to intensify the rescue and relief efforts.
When the country saw a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases, PRC built the first emergency field hospital (EFH) in the Lung Center of the Philippines (LCP) compound.
The EFH acts as a step down facility where those who are already recovering from COVID-19 in hospitals can be admitted to make available hospital beds to more serious cases. It was established near the hospital so those who tested positive and have to be admitted have access to doctors, nurses, X-ray, CT scan, and other medical facilities.
To help curb the further spread of the virus, PRC also established isolation facilities in universities namely Ateneo de Manila University, University of the Philippines, De La Salle University College of Saint Benilde, and Adamson University which cater to asymptomatic patients.
Under Gordon’s leadership, PRC continues to serve the most vulnerable even with limited resources.