OF SUBSTANCE AND SPIRIT
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the end game of the pandemic. It’s been two years since Wuhan, and we are now into the third year. Even prize-winning, bestseller writers like Haruki Murakami could not resist speaking against the government’s ineptness in pandemic management. No less than Bloomberg on Aug. 30, 2021 carried Murakami’s criticism of Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga when he quoted Suga himself as saying “an exit is now in our sight after a long tunnel.” Murakami, in his usual irreverent dread, rebuked the prime minister: “If he really saw an exit, his eyes must be extremely good for his age. I am of the same age (72) as Mr. Suga, but I don’t see any exit at all.”
Is there no exit at all in 2022?
For Bill Gates who released his prognosis of 2022 in December 2021, it is the “declining trust in public institutions (that) is creating tangible problems and complicating our efforts to respond to challenges” particularly in putting an end to the pandemic.
Some known markers betray the weakness of public governance. Gates himself recognized that even as the world has been vaccinated in the billions and economic recovery is gaining more traction, the bounce back was not as dramatic as he hoped. There were more deaths in 2021 than in 2020. With new mutations in progress, Delta and Omicron included, Gates admitted having underestimated the difficulty of convincing people to get the jab and wear face masks.
But Gates was more optimistic because today, the world knows more and is better prepared to handle the virus after a two-year ordeal. Delta destroyed more lives because it was detected quite late in the day while Omicron yielded to the genomic sequencing capabilities of South Africa.
What is the world’s armory in the new year against the health pandemic?
Gates could not have been more impressed with the discovery, manufacture and distribution of not one but a number of vaccines against COVID-19. The more efforts are undertaken using different approaches against the ever-mutating virus, the higher the success rate. In fact, in his recent pronouncements, Gates was optimistic the worst of the pandemic should be over sometime in 2022, transitioning to an endemic stage.
Undoubtedly, the new vaccine platform that is the mRNA, or messenger Ribonucleic Acid, promises to be the most important breakthrough of the pandemic. Such vaccines teach human cells how to make a protein that will trigger an appropriate immune response inside our bodies. mRNA equips the world to further develop safe and effective vaccines super-fast for COVID-19 or for that matter, other diseases, in the future.
Gates also underscored the value of non-pharmaceutical interventions. Before the vaccines, the world relied heavily on health protocols including mask mandates, quarantine procedures and travel restrictions. These interventions cannot be simply discarded; they will remain critical planks in pandemic management.
While pandemic management falls squarely on systems and governments, Gates believed that 2022 would be more promising if individuals will realize they can make a difference. Teachers were impactful when they went out of their way to drop off class materials on their students’ doorstep. Medical workers were impactful when they without stop catered to the needs of COVID patients even at their own risk.
Progress in therapeutics at the height of the pandemic was admittedly slow. Treatment was limited to Remdesivir, Dexamethasone and monoclonal antibodies which were no match to new variants. Gates was encouraged by the recent development of Molnupiravir by Merck for high-risk patients. The cheap drug prevents the infected from being hospitalized or from dying because of COVID-19, with prospects of generic manufacturing for wider access and protection.
Another challenge last year was the inequity of vaccine distribution across the world. So very “few people at high risk in low-income countries” have received the vaccines, much less the booster. Gates believed the world should produce more vaccines real fast. More countries should be empowered to develop, manufacture and approve vaccines by themselves.
Gates also deplored widespread disinformation. Conspiracy theories seemed to have convinced a lot of people not to get the shot, especially in the US partly because of distrust in institutions. Gates argued that such distrust did not start with the pandemic. Pandemic only affirmed what had been happening for years. Societies have been divided because of “24-hour news cycle, a political climate that rewards headline generation over substantive debate, and the rise of social media.”
This is most true in the Philippines.
Regulation is needed to protect society against falsehood and deception. If there is parental guidance in both TV and movies, we also need equal protection against the real harm that social media can inflict on us. One example Gates cited is a video that claimed the vaccines make one infertile. For other similar reasons, hordes of Filipinos remain unvaccinated and therefore most vulnerable to the virus. They need to know that both infection and mortality are undeniably highest among the unvaccinated.
One aspect of the future for Gates is the metaverse. This is a 3D space with digital avatars, icons that could represent real people in virtual space. Both Facebook and Microsoft recently showed what this future will look like. In the same way that Zoom and other forms of remote meetings were enabled by accessible laptops and smartphones, VR goggles and motion capture gloves will allow the accurate capture of one’s expressions, body language and the quality of one’s voice to achieve a real-space ambiance.
No matter how brave the future is for Gates, the bottomline is to ensure the world can tame the virus. No less than Murakami expects to see that. After all, COVID-19 co-existing with the metaverse world of goggles and motion capture gloves sounds anachronistic.