POSTSCRIPT / February 4, 2020 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Duterte faces acid test in nCoV crisis

A NERVOUS nation wonders if and when President Duterte will emerge from his weekend break to preside over a crisis meeting called belatedly to plot moves to nip the spread of the deadly Novel Coronavirus (nCoV) four days after the Philippines recorded its first case.

The epidemic, described by the World Health Organization as a global emergency, has given the Duterte administration the distinction of recording the first death outside China where the contagion started in December in Wuhan, Hubei province.

The lone local fatality was a 44-year-old male Chinese who died on Feb. 1. He was the traveling companion of a 38-year-old Chinese woman, who arrived from Wuhan on Jan. 21 from Hong Kong.

Duterte is under pressure to fend off accusations that his response to the public health crisis has not been proactive enough, allegedly slowed down by his being overly careful not to offend China with, say, a travel ban.

As we write this, we still have to receive reports of President Duterte coming out of his reported rest and addressing the nation to assure Filipinos of resolute well-studied measures to contain the creeping nCoV epidemic.

The acute respiratory disease outbreak has put Duterte to the test. He is seen as not proactive enough, slow to react to emergencies, as well as more concerned about not displeasing Chinese than looking after the welfare of Filipinos.

When the death toll mounted in the region, mainly in Hubei, Duterte downplayed the contagion. He hesitated to stop mainland Chinese flocking to the Philippines even when it was clear that some of them could be asymptomatic virus carriers.

It is jarring to see a national leader who mouths love of country putting fealty to foreigners above concern for the safety and welfare of his people.

As we await word about his meeting the inter-agency task force on the nCoV crisis — announced by Sen. Bong Go, the President’s occasional spokesman, press secretary and photographer – we see a government strategy taking shape that includes:

• The limited ban on foreigners arriving from Hubei has been made total to cover all aliens who have been in mainland China, including the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, in the last 14 days.

• Filipinos and holders of permanent resident visas are exempted from the ban but they have to undergo a 14-day quarantine during which they must stay home, wear protective masks, observe precautionary measures and report any symptom or sign of infection.

• Filipinos are banned, until a notice to the contrary when the crisis is over, from traveling to China and its Special Administrative Regions.

In crowded urban centers, meanwhile, there is an air of unease over the possible spread of the virus in public places such as malls, cinemas, campuses, markets and restaurants. What is being done to reduce possible contamination?

How do we protect people who take buses, light rail trains, taxis and UV Express vehicles where passengers breathe the same confined air? Contamination is likely if any of the passengers has the virus.

As the government started to enforce the ban, hundreds of foreigners, mostly Chinese, were held at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport terminals until they could be flown back to their airports of origin.

The confusion amid the stranding of international travelers would have been avoided or minimized if the ban were announced earlier and airports and airlines informed in advance.

The question is also being asked if Filipinos and permanent alien residents flying back to the Philippines from nCoV-free areas but are transiting through China, Hong Kong or Macau will be covered by the ban and quarantine rule.

Travel to and from the Philippines transiting through any point in China will be affected. Revising itineraries to exclude layovers or transit stops in China will dampen the business of international airlines.

The repatriation and quarantine of travelers, including Filipinos in China, will require the building or setting aside of adequate facilities and the training of competent personnel to look after them. This will eat into the government budget.

We are talking only of steps being taken by the Philippines. Some other countries are taking their own public health countermeasures, including the banning of travelers who have been to China in the past two weeks.

Issues over passengers transiting in China because of technical or market requirements may have to be discussed industrywide. Should passengers who are merely transiting (and not going outside the airport) in China be exempted from the ban?

Once a Filipino on a multi-leg trip disembarks to take a connecting flight in Hong Kong, for instance, will the ban apply because he has set foot on Chinese soil even just for an hour or so in transit?

Plane personnel, including pilots and cabin crew, may require special treatment, otherwise their situation would wreak havoc on airlines’ personnel management.

Filipinos flying to or from Manila and the United States may be forced to fly Philippine Airlines merely because PAL, unlike many of its competitors, has long-haul flights across the Pacific (actually the polar route) without touching any airport in-between.

Many airlines have suspended flights to China. Aside from complying with government bans, the airlines actually have no choice because there have been few passengers going to China after the nCoV outbreak. Why fly an almost empty plane?

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

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