OF TREES AND FOREST
It’s not rocket science. Multiple studies have confirmed it. It is the playbook recommended by experts, including the World Health Organization (WHO), to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s the strategy employed by countries that managed coronavirus surges without resorting to debilitating and prolonged lockdowns. It is what we need to do to get ahead of this thing.
The WHO have repeated their guidance in a February 2021 publication: “Contact tracing – along with robust testing, isolation and care of cases – is a key strategy for interrupting chains of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and reducing mortality associated with COVID-19.” It is not difficult to understand the logic of this strategy. If we can find people infected with the coronavirus, isolate and treat them, and immediately trace people they came in contact with then we can get a hold of this rampaging pandemic.
I know I have repeatedly expressed this in my column. This strategy has also been repeated by experts and public officials. But I thought it is worth repeating here given the plan of the government COVID-19 task force to switch to granular lockdowns instead of full, citywide and region-wide lockdowns. I have supported this move because hard lockdowns while effective in some instances, cannot be a long-term solution to the pandemic. Hard lockdowns will negatively impact our economy, our social relations, and the mental and psychological being of our people long after we have defeated the virus.
The shift to a more clinical lockdown is a welcome move. But it is not going to be easy. It is important to stress that lockdowns, whether total or partial, are only effective when accompanied by massive testing, efficient contact tracing, isolation, and, of course, expanded vaccination. This shift in strategy must also be accompanied by a shift in resources.
We need to provide resources so testing can be readily available to the entire population. The past week have seen an average of around 70,000 tests per day. We need to ramp this up to more than 150,000 a day. We also need to reduce the cost of testing so that everyone can have access to COVID-19 testing.
More importantly, we need to finally roll our sleeves and get to work on contact tracing. Contact tracing is not just about launching a digital app. It’s a lot of organizational work. I hope the national government, even as it rolls out the granular lockdown strategy, will provide the necessary funds so local governments can put together contact tracing teams that are community-based. They need money for training as well as administrative, material, and logistics support. At the end of the day, contact tracing is most effective when local governments and communities do it. Contact tracers need to build trust and establish open communication with local peoples.
We can complement this contact tracing effort on the ground by investing in a digital contact tracing app that actually works. There are challenges to this: questions regarding data privacy, internet connectivity, among others. But we can address these concerns by communicating our goals clearly to people. And I am pretty sure telecommunication networks will be open to working with government on this.
This is a lot of work. If it will do us any good, I would say that we should have done this long ago but we need to look forward instead of wallowing in past miscalculations. Let us begin the work now. We are facing record high infection rates and we are pivoting to a new strategy. Let us learn from the experiences of countries that implemented effective testing and tracing strategies: South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Germany and New Zealand. The latter, in particular, acted with urgency and was able to arrest the surge caused by the Delta variant.
And may I just add this: can we set aside whatever it is that divides us for just a little while and focus all our energies and resources on making sure this new strategy works? Our common enemy is COVID-19 and our common mission is to make sure that our society and economy endures in the future.