Thank you, IATF!

Published June 28, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Dr. Edsel Salvana

A final meeting

CLINICAL MATTERS

As I write this column, we are gearing up for the final meeting of the Interagency Taskforce (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases under the Duterte administration. This will be the 169th meeting of the body and the last one for the present government. The IATF will continue to function as we transition to a newly elected government, but the heads of the agencies will change.

I have been attending IATF meetings as part of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) since the 11th meeting last March 2020 in Camp Aguinaldo. At that time, we recommended to President Duterte lock down Metro Manila due to the impending threat of Covid-19. The initial lockdown is estimated to have saved over 200,000 Filipinos. It came just in time to prevent the healthcare system from collapsing.

Throughout the pandemic, the IATF approved essential policies that regulated the use of masks, mobility restrictions for different age groups, quarantine and isolation policies, testing priorities, vaccine rollouts, border control, community quarantine, alert level systems, and many others. During these past two years, the IATF has worked hand in hand with scientists and health experts, the private sector, and the public to ensure an efficient whole-of-nation, science-based response. Despite limited resources, the IATF has successfully shepherded the country through the pandemic with better outcomes than some of the most advanced countries in the world.

Thanks to the IATF’s long-term vision, the Philippines currently has one of the lowest daily case rates in Asia. It is also one of the fastest-growing economies. Wisely retaining the mask mandate has ensured the suppression of cases even as previously pandemic-resilient countries like Taiwan and Australia are seeing daily case numbers in the tens of thousands.

Despite a recent rise in cases, severe and critically ill Covid-19 numbers remain very low and healthcare utilization is below 50 percent. In a sign that Covid-19 is becoming endemic, deaths from dengue, which is an endemic disease in the Philippines, were higher at 39 deaths in May 2022 than deaths attributed to Covid-19 in the same period.

Aside from the more than 150 IATF meetings the TAG attended, we have been active on numerous subcommittees and technical working groups of the IATF. These subgroups are staffed and administered by undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, directors, and rank and file of the different departments, along with consultants from the academe and private sector. The IATF-EID has been one of the hardest-working government entities in the history of our country. That fateful night in Malacañang when President Duterte decided to impose the initial lockdown, he also ordered Secretary Duque and the cabinet secretaries who make up the IATF to meet at least once a week. The president appreciated the severe impact of the lockdown on our people, and he wanted to make sure that the restrictions and policies are reviewed frequently so that these can be relaxed or modified as soon as they are no longer appropriate.

While it came to prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic, the IATF-EID was conceived under the Aquino administration back in 2014. The IATF-EID was created through Executive Order No. 168 issued by the late President Benigno Aquino III in 2014. It was organized as the government’s instrument to assess, monitor, contain, control, and prevent the spread of any potential epidemic in the Philippines. It was meant to orchestrate a whole nation approach to emerging infectious diseases, keeping in mind recent global outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Avian Influenza, Ebola, and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

The overall chairperson of the IATF is the President of the Philippines. The chairperson is the secretary of the Department of Health. Other government agencies that were originally designated to the task force were the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor and Employment, the Department of Tourism, and the Department of Transportation and Communications.

The task force may call upon any department, bureau, office, agency, or instrumentality of the government, including government-owned or -controlled corporations, government financial institutions, local government units, non-government organizations and the private sector for assistance as the circumstances and exigencies may require (www.officialgazette.gov.ph/2014/05/26/executive-order-no-168-s-2014/).

The current iteration of the IATF has expanded to include almost all major government agencies, reflecting the encompassing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The IATF chairperson is DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III. The previous Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles and Department of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana have served as co-chairpersons. An implementing body of the IATF was also formed, namely the National Task Force (NTF) against Covid-19 headed by the secretary of National Defense with Office of the Presidential Adviser of the Peace Process Secretary Carlito Galvez as chief implementer and Bases Conversion and Development Authority Secretary Vince Dizon as deputy chief implementer. Directly under the IATF is the IATF Technical Working Group (IATF-TWG) composed of deputies of different agencies. The IATF-TWG is headed by DFA Undersecretary Brigido Dulay and this group vets and refines policies prior to presentation to the IATF proper.

Numerous sub-technical working groups, committees, and subcommittees were also formed to help with the numerous policies and administrative orders that were needed to guide the Philippines through the pandemic. Many more were added on as the situation changed. Having served on a lot of these subcommittees, I can say that the work done in these smaller groups is both meticulous and exhaustive. There was always the concern that some policies may not have enough evidence to support their implementation, or some policies may be an overreach or are not strong enough.

As the variants of concern emerged, many policies had to be tweaked to reflect the new behavior of the virus. When vaccines were developed, an unprecedented rollout that has now succeeded in fully inoculating over 70 million Filipinos was implemented. The Philippine Covid-19 response, with its many moving parts amidst the changing landscape has for the most part weathered the storm. As we shift from a pandemic to an endemic framework, the work of the IATF is not yet over.

Ensuring the hard-won gains are sustained while continuing to open our society for full economic recovery is a delicate balancing act. We hope the incoming administration retains the policies that we developed because these have served us well. The new IATF will hope to modify these policies carefully in a rigorous, scientific manner so that they continue to protect the Filipino people. We remain committed to helping them achieve our goal of a pandemic-resilient Philippines. To the men and women of the IATF and its attached agencies who have so gallantly served during this administration, a grateful nation salutes you. Thank you for your service.

 
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