NCR Plus Plus?

Published June 9, 2021, 12:28 AM

by Former Senate President Manny Villar


Former Senate President
Manny Villar

The coronavirus seems to be creeping outside the National Capital Region (NCR). The Department of Health has expressed alarm over the increase in COVID-19 infections in provinces specifically in Mindanao. It noted that 25% of fresh cases the past few weeks have come from Mindanao outpacing NCR which used to get the brunt of infections during the recent surge.

As the data hover between 6,000 to 7,000 daily cases, regions outside the capital has consistently showed alarming levels of COVID-19 infections. Looking at the June 4 data for instance, out of the 7,450 new cases only 1,118 were from NCR the rest were from Regions IV, III, VI, X and II. Davao City (59%), Cagayan de Oro City (53%), Iloilo City (89%), and South Cotabato (110%) have shown disconcerting weekly growth rate based on the analysis by Edson Guido. As a result, hospital ICU occupancy in Cagayan Valley, Calabarzon, Zamboanga Peninsula, and Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) have reached high risk levels according to the DOH.

This is a worrying trend that should be addressed by health officials and the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF). Just as we are increasing inoculation rates, we cannot afford to have another surge of infections in areas outside the NCR. Despite the recent increase in infections, we were at least confident that it was focused on basically one area—the center of commerce in the country. In other words, it is more or less contained. In fact, that seems to have driven the decision to create the so-called “NCR Plus bubble”. Policy decisions, resources, and vaccination drives were particularly focused on NCR Plus. But if there would be an outbreak of COVID-19 infections in different parts of the country, that would stretch our already limited resources thin.

Right now, we are focusing our vaccination program in NCR Plus with the hope that immunizing a great percentage of the population in the area where most of the infections are will help us contain the virus. But what happens if the surges happen in the Visayas and Mindanao? If NCR health facilities struggled to cope with the increase in COVID-19 patients can you just imagine the crisis we need to face in areas where health facilities are less than ideal compared to the capital?

We need to make sure that local officials are strictly implementing health protocols in areas outside NCR specifically those seeing a jump in infections. This means ensuring that people do not gather en masse, that they wear face masks and observe physical distancing guidelines. This also means that officials need to reevaluate transportation and border guidelines. We want to reopen tourism and the economy but the way to do that is to make sure that we do so while protecting the health of our people.

And we need to ramp up the vaccination drive in NCR Plus. Now that more vaccines are due to arrive this month, let us make sure that priority groups are vaccinated including economic frontliners (A4 group). As the country beefs up the supply of vaccines, we can start protecting those who are critical in restarting the engines of the economy. And given that the capital is the largest contributor to the country’s production of goods and services at 36.6% GDP, this makes a lot of sense.

With the limited supply of vaccines, we need to have a surgical approach to our immunization program—focus on priority groups and areas where transmissions are surging. It is good to hear that the United States has included the Philippines in the list of 15 countries in Asia that would receive 7 million doses of their surplus COVID-19 vaccines. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also issued emergency use authorization for Chinese-made Sinovac which hopefully would help in addressing vaccine hesitancy among some of our people.

Hopefully, these developments will provide the necessary boost to our inoculation program. This is a race against time. We are a bit behind so we need to get our acts together so we can catch up. We need to get ahead of this pandemic. It is unacceptable to simply go through surges and lockdowns without a vision and plan to end this crisis.