BETTER DAYS

Senator Sonny Angara

A September 2021 Bloomberg article on what the next six months of the COVID-19[1] pandemic will bring provides a very sobering reminder that is especially critical now as the Philippines takes steps to gradually reopen the economy and relax the tight restrictions of the community quarantines.

Citing several interviews with experts and academics, the article argues that people should brace themselves for more of what they’ve already been through since the pandemic started—fresh outbreaks and surges of COVID-19 cases in classrooms, public transport and workplaces over the coming months. This is largely because billions of people around the world have yet to be vaccinated, and the virus will somehow find a way to reach these unvaccinated populations. One expert was even quoted to say “This is a coronavirus forest fire that will not stop until it finds all the human wood that it can burn.”

The article then says that when compared to the five well-documented, large-scale influenza outbreaks in the past 130 years, the current one is emerging to be among the most severe. Most global flu outbreaks ran from two to three years on average with two to four waves of infection, whereas the ongoing pandemic is running on its second year and in the middle of its third wave, with no clear end in sight. Its death toll of 4.6 million people is already more than double of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

Furthermore, there is the notion that COVID-19 will almost surely mutate (and potentially become more dangerous), with the gargantuan number of infections all over the world overriding the virus’ natural ability to “proof-read” or replicate itself more consistently when it is transmitted from person to person. This is among the main reasons there is a growing scientific consensus that the virus is becoming endemic (which means, such that regular vaccine boosters will be needed just as it is with the flu.

What’s clear is that vaccination remains a critical element to the pandemic’s end. But given that some countries have been able to inoculate their populations much faster than others, the pandemic will end at different times in different places as argued by one of the experts interviewed in the article. That also means the approach to “living with the virus” and adapting to the “new normal” will vary, with some countries holding firm on their goal of zero COVID-19 cases with others figuring out an infection threshold they’re comfortable with. As one of the experts emphasized, the end process is not going to be uniform, especially because the pandemic is not just a biological phenomenon, but “also a political and social” one.

What does this all mean for us in the Philippines, especially since we’ve already been dubbed as among the worst places to be during the pandemic? An obvious point is the importance of vaccination. Extra steps should be taken to ensure that the national COVID-19 inoculation drive is successful and finished in the shortest time possible.

But given that the vaccine roll-out continues to be hounded by supply issues, all the more should extra resources, and manpower be devoted to beefing up our health response. This is a point which I’ve raised multiple times throughout the hearings in the Senate we’ve chaired so far on the 2022 budget.

Where the budgeting process has always been a balancing act among competing interests and goals, it’s only appropriate that in 2022 utmost priority is given to the pandemic response. After all, our very existence is under threat, and we should focus on facing this threat before pursuing any other goals we may have as a society. This simply means that while funds are tight, items such as the hiring of contact tracers, the special risk allowances (SRA) for our health workers, an expansion of testing regimes, as well as the purchase of booster shots and extra doses for minors should take precedence over others. Hopefully, we in the Senate Committee on Finance will be able to come up with a version of the General Appropriations Act that will reflect this.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the steps that have already been initiated to restart and reopen the economy should be rolled back; only that the gradual relaxation of restrictions should coincide with even stronger support for our already embattled health system.

(Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 17 years. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.)

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