Learning from PH Red Cross’ vital contribution in hurdling Covid-19 pandemic



Sonny Coloma

Where were you when the first Covid-19 lockdown was announced?

For us baby boomers, this question brings to mind two milestone experiences that happened in succession 50 years earlier: The first man-on-the-moon landing by Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969, the day after Gloria Diaz became Miss Universe. Fast forward to Friday, March 13, 2020. The government announced that effective Monday, March 16, enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) would be in force in Metro Manila and nationwide.

On May 5, 2023 – or 13 months ago today – the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the end of Covid-19 as a “public health issue of international concern.”

Last week, the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) hosted a World Disasters Report Forum coinciding with the visit of Kate Foster, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Ms. Foster congratulated the PRC for its outstanding work in controlling the spread of the pandemic.

PRC Chairman Richard J. Gordon recalled how the PRC proactively mobilized massive logistical resources, in collaboration with IFRC, to respond to the unprecedented public health crisis.

When the pandemic broke out, only the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), an attached agency of the Department of Health (DOH) had the capability to conduct testing for the presence of genetic material – ribonucleic acid or RNA of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 – through the Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test that analyzed upper respiratory specimen.

In April 2020, one month after the government imposed the first lockdown, or enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), the Philippine Red Cross established its first molecular laboratory for Covid-19 testing.

From this initial facility, the PRC set up molecular laboratories in other parts of Metro Manila, Subic, Clark, Batangas, Cebu, Negros Occidental, Zamboanga, Cagayan de Oro, Isabela, Surigao del Norte, Iloilo and Cotabato. According to Dr. Gwen Pang, secretary general, PRC conducted 5.7 million swab and saliva tests for Covid-19 between April 2020 and June 2023.

“All the Red Cross molecular laboratories that are now up and running, and those that are soon to open are capable of testing other communicable viruses aside from Covid. We can also test tuberculosis, human immunodeficiency viruses or HIV, dengue, malaria, hepatitis, leptospirosis and Zika, among other diseases,” according to Chairman Gordon, in an interview with Bombo Radyo in June 2020. As reported by the Philippine News Agency, he said that it will also be “repurposed for our blood centers and facilities to address the demand for blood.”

The PRC deployed the entire range of its facilities and resources – molecular laboratories, emergency field hospitals, isolation facilities, convalescent plasma center, Bakuna Buses, and Bakuna Centers – in a comprehensive effort to help achieve “herd immunity,” which is generally defined as attainment of a 70 percent vaccination rate.

During the Omicron variant outbreak in January 2022, I personally witnessed and experienced the readiness and efficiency of the PRC’s response network that enabled members of our family and household to immediately settle into the treat-and-recover mode after the initial shock of realizing that we had been infected. Thankfully, too, this turned out to be a mild variant that needed only five to seven days of isolation and medication to pan out.

According to a report of Wiley Online Library on public health challenges that was published on Jan. 31, 2023: “As of November 2022, 65 percent of Filipinos have been vaccinated, nearing the 70 percent target. Despite this progress, vaccination efforts in the Philippines remain challenged with vaccine hesitancy, unequal distribution, and limitations of the cold chain logistics.” It is reasonable to project that herd immunity was attained by the time the WHO declared in May 2023 the end of Covid-19 as a “public health issue of international concern.”

At a panel discussion that followed Chairman Gordon’s report in last week’s PRC forum, the audience found out more about how the response mechanisms for staving off the massive disaster brought on by the pandemic were set into motion.

Dr. Paulyn Jean Ubial, head of PRC’s molecular laboratory Covid-19 response narrated how the testing facilities were set up in Metro Manila and key provincial cities. Dean Charlotte Chong of UP Manila that includes the UP College of Medicine recalled the heroism of 130 medical interns who opted to stay and work at the Philippine General Hospital despite being instructed to go home at the onset of the pandemic.

Dr. Rizzy Alejandro, who was then Chief Public Health Officer of Ayala Healthcare, shared her experience in witnessing ground-zero response activities at the PGH. She recalled that from only 4,500 tests in April 2020, PRC ramped this up to 30,000 tests in June and 90,000 tests in August. She also recalled how some of the country’s biggest firms demonstrated their corporate social responsibility during the crisis.

To appreciate the impact of Chairman Gordon and the PRC’s herculean efforts, let’s refer to a documented academic critique.     

Three researchers from the UP College of Science’s Science, Technology and Society – namely, Professor Benjamin Vallejo, Jr., Dr. Rodrigo Angelo Ong, and Assistant Professor Ranjit Singh Rye – assessed the effectiveness of Covid-19 policies in stemming the pandemic’s tide and in shielding citizens and communities from its lethal effects.

Government policy decisions from 180 countries, including the Philippines, were tracked daily since Jan. 1, 2020 to Dec. 31, 2022, and standardized in the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) Variation in Government Advice data set. These were aggregated into four indices: Government Response Index, Stringency Index, Containment and Health Index, and Economic Support Index.

As reviewed in the UP College of Science Journal: “The STS scientists were able to determine that stringent pandemic policies — including lockdowns, quarantines, stay-at-home ordinances, and travel restrictions — were effective in containing the pandemic within the first 60 days. These are all dependent on law enforcement and a securitized approach.” 

The review noted that “the government was least effective” in the aspects of contact tracing and testing to promptly contain clusters of infections after the easing of lockdowns and the resumption of limited mobility. Also deemed effective was the conduct of travel health checks such as requiring proof of vaccination and antigen tests that reduced infection risk across provincial and international borders. Other interventions such as mask-wearing and social distancing “while significantly effective at the local level, were not significantly effective at the national level” due to “the differing levels of citizen compliance in communities.”

Harnessing the combined power of volunteers, logistics, and information technology, the PRC continues to render unmatched public service, true to its motto: Always First, Always Ready, Always There!