Keeping the country on alert

Published September 27, 2021, 6:11 AM

by Vince Socco

I welcome the shift in the pandemic management protocols from the quarantine to the alertsystem.

My beef with the quarantine system is that it nurtures a mindset of fear. Of course, in the early stages of the pandemic, it was needed. Alternatively called as a lockdown, quarantine or shelter-in-place, the call to action was to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus by restricting mobility and restricting physical interaction. The world knew little – even nothing – about the virus. Therefore, denying the virus “hosts” could be best achieved by keeping the infected away from those who were not and vice versa.

I would argue that the Philippines did the right thing by declaring an Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) early in the war against COVID. We were the first in the region to do so, placing the country under ECQ in March last year. At the time, the goal was clear: to flatten the curve by arresting the rise of infections. Doing so allowed government to build-up our critical care capacity, including testing facilities.

To be fair, the efforts at virus containment and increased care capacity worked. By June last year, the rise in number of infections seemed to be brought under control and medical facilities were reasonably decongested. Unfortunately, as quarantine restrictions were relaxed, a spike in cases happened in August, leading to another hard lockdown. Soon enough, though, General Community Quarantine (GCQ) was imposed in the metro area, signalling a reopening of the economy.

It took a while and a lot of effort to draw the public out of quarantine, out of their fear. Although businesses were restarting their operations, consumers were still keeping close to home and, thus, limiting the pace of recovery. This is where it started to become obvious that the quarantine system of pandemic management was, perhaps, much more debilitating than intended. Why? Because every time a spike in cases was reported, the given course of action was to enforce a stricter quarantine level. Fear and isolation prevailed rather than a mindset of increased vigilance and managed protection. People got used to quarantine as the only solution to the pandemic and their fear of getting infected.

The rapid increase in cases in March and then July this year made things worse. Obviously, the cause was the spread of new variants but the recourse was, again, quarantine rather than enhanced vigilance. People expected that quarantine levels would be increased thus reinforcing their fear.Of course, by this time, vaccines were finding their way to the populace. Unfortunately, vaccine anxiety was pervasive with surveys from early in the year showing that only some 15% of Filipinos were willing to be vaccinated. Thankfully, acceptance of the vaccine has now started to grow.

The mindset of fear that the quarantine system nurtures is the biggest barrier to balancing lives and livelihood. The vaccine inoculation of greater numbers of Filipinos should reducethe level of fear and stimulate a positive outlook towards reengaging with society and the economy. The vaccine is not going to disappear any time soon. It will probably be around for a long while to come. As such, a new mindset of “living with the virus” needs to be propagated. We need to break out of quarantine.

Enter the alerts system. I believe this is a much more relevant approach because it nurtures a sense of preparedness than fear. Just like other countries, people are alerted to the degree of spread of infection so that people can take the necessary measures to meet the heightened alert level. This is similar to the typhoon and earthquake alert system. Evacuation is the last resort. Before getting to that level, there are other various courses of action that are recommended. What it allows us to do is manage our way through the disaster with degrees of care and vigilance.

What I am not sure of is why the National Capital Region (NCR) must be subject to a single alert level for the whole region rather than allowing different levels by city or local government unit (LGU). I understand that the health care system in some cities may be more inundated than others therefore keeping these cities in the higher alert status. Some mayors claim this is unfair because many of the patients are not really their constituents and their local economy is penalized. I submit, though,that their critical care system is over burdened, regardless of where the patients come from. It is also not fair that other cities whose hospitals are not as burdened should be prevented from opening up their economies faster or wider. I think the alert status should not be NCR-wide.

It is early days with the new pandemic management system. I am hopeful, though, that this will provide much more agility in our pandemic responses. Vigilance over fear.

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