POSTSCRIPT / August 4, 2020 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Duterte blinks as front liners gripe

WITH coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases surging past the 100,000 mark and public health front liners asking for better handling of the crisis, President Duterte has approved the return of Mega Manila to a strict Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine from Aug. 4 to 18.

Doctors, nurses and other health workers had warned that the COVID-19 pandemic might just overwhelm the fragile public health system and take more lives before the government and the private sectors could get their acts together.

The health workers’ warning came Saturday as the administration was set to relax the lockdown in densely populated Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal to allow more livelihood and business activities to stimulate the lagging economy.

The administration’s plan to loosen restrictions indicated that Duterte had in mind saving the economy in the area that accounts for 67 percent of the gross national product even at the risk of losing more lives when people resume normal activities and spread the virus.

In his televised meeting with selected Cabinet members, Duterte explained that he could not prepare an anti-COVID road map and a post-pandemic strategy because he was still waiting for a vaccine, we presume from China.

He pointed out that nobody saw the pandemic coming, which was why he and everybody else were caught unprepared. Even the rich countries, he added, are having a hard time reining in the rampaging coronavirus.

He did not mention that some modest countries that are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations like the Philippines are faring well because their governments handled their COVID response better and earlier.

It is ironic that as of the other day, the Philippines had overtaken China in its total number of COVID-19 cases (103,185 vs China’s 84,385), of new cases (5,032 vs 49), new deaths (20 vs 0), and of its remaining active cases (35,569 vs 748).

The other day, the Philippines moved up to No. 6 in the world tally of 215 countries based on their number of new cases that day. With its 5,032 new COVID cases, the Philippines followed India (52,783), US (49,038), Colombia (11,470), Mexico (9,556) and Russia (5,427).

The President has been asking the public to cooperate and follow quarantine rules while awaiting the vaccine. China President Xi Jinping has assured him of priority supply once it becomes available before December.

He said the vaccine will be given free to the 20 million Filipinos who are on the list of the poorest of the poor receiving ayuda or cash aid from the government. Also on the priority list are his soldiers and policemen whom he describes as the backbone of his administration. Members of the communist New People’s Army, he added, may ask to be vaccinated if they renounce terrorism and their plot against the government.

The vaccine’s unit price is P500 but the price can go up to P1,200 with handling and other expenses. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said $400 million has been set aside through the Development Bank of the  Philippines and the Land Bank of the Philippines.

He could not say yet if the vaccine will be administered in one or two spaced doses per person. Some vaccines using weakened viruses require only one application but those using dead viruses usually require repeated or booster shots.

China, where the novel coronavirus first appeared Iate last year in its Wuhan province, had a head start among more than 100 vaccine developer-firms around the world. At least 25 brands are already in Phase 3, the stage of testing the vaccine on humans.

Three Chinese firms are leading the pack in the race for mass production: Sinovac, Sinopharm (in Wuhan), and another Sinopharm in Beijing. As of last week, they were in Phase 3.

Other pharma groups in the human testing stage are Oxford/Astrazeneca (UK), Moderna (US), and Pfizer/BioNtech (US). Developers in earlier stages include CanSino Biological (China), Zhifei (China), Inovio (US), Novavax (US), Johnson & Johnson (US), and Merck (US).

The administration had planned to lift quarantine restrictions in Metro Manila and Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) to stimulate economic activity in those areas.

But several organizations of doctors, nurses and other health workers issued a statement Saturday that they were exhausted and worried about the contamination to which they have been exposed. They asked for a respite of 15 days while concerns are addressed.

The grumbling hinted at grievances, highlighting the heavy burden they carry and the risks they face — many have succumbed to COVID-19 — yet receiving comparatively low pay and paltry appreciation. Many also say the administration has not been up to the COVID challenge.

During the Cabinet discussion on the front liners’ pleas, Duterte conceded the pay disparity, noting for instance that while the entry-level monthly pay of his soldiers is P30,000, a new-hire nurse gets only P8,000.

The review of working conditions resulted in Duterte approving a recommendation for wage increases and the inclusion in the Bayanihan-2 bill in the Congress of such benefits as risk pay, insurance, transportation and billeting allowances, as well as free swab testing.

Duterte told Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to mobilize military nurses for the anti-COVID campaign. In an aside as he highlighted the service of front liners, he mentioned that his partner Honeylet Avanceña, a nurse by profession, wanted to volunteer.

The President reiterated his appeal to the people to be patient and wait for the vaccine. He stressed that obeying quarantine rules will help the nation survive the pandemic.

If people who are stuck home are unable to earn for their daily needs, the administration can try blaming the front liners who pressed the return to MECQ, aside from raising the old lament of Filipinos being “pasaway” (stubborn).

(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 4, 2020)

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