POSTSCRIPT / March 24, 2020 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Who’ll starve first: The virus or its host?

IT LOOKS like we Filipinos are running a starvation race with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) that has killed 25 out of 380 known local victims as of Sunday, or a mortality rate of 6.6 percent compared to the 4-percent world average.

The problem with this mortality ratio of 25:380 is that it has been distorted by misreporting and the government’s failure to go into mass or evenly dispersed regional testing while giving priority tests to officials and their family members even if asymptomatic.

Mortality reports give us the feeling that many of those afflicted without knowing it are unwitting carriers, conjuring up images as scary as Italy’s having had 792 patients dying of COVID-19 the other day alone.

The coronavirus has been found to survive on surfaces for as long as 14 days, after which it supposedly starves to death. If during that time it fails to latch on to another victim or carrier, it dies.

Theoretically, if we all agree to stop physical contact, keep our distance (1-2 meters?) and suppress coughing, we will be able to stop the viral contamination and the virus dies in place. That sounds logical.

So what happened to the prescribed “social distance” in the crowds lining up for politicians’ giveaways in such bailiwicks as Las Piñas? And why was the distance rule ignored when medical and other frontline personnel sat close to one another in army trucks ferrying them to work?

With no known cure yet for the disease that popped out of China late last year before leapfrogging to the rest of the world, we have been anxious to see which will starve to death first, the virus or its victims.

Meantime, how do we feed the locked-down population and sustain a minimum maintenance level of economic activity? How do we make sure not more people die of hunger-related ailments before the coronavirus itself starves to death?

What is the government’s plan for feeding people confined to their dwellings? Will a food shortage hit us in a few months, or weeks, even as panic-buying stops because while there is panic there is not much to buy?

While lockdowns and quarantines may help reduce viral contamination, they could also mean starvation for many people, especially the poor and the jobless. Even without the COVID-19 scourge, millions of poor Filipinos admit going hungry.

What more with factory shutdowns and police-military checkpoints constricting the flow of raw materials and the distribution of foodstuff, medical supplies and other essential items?

Apparently anticipating a situation marked by low food supply, widespread unrest and a likely rise in crime and violence, President Duterte is asking the Congress to declare a state of national emergency and grant him special powers to address the crisis.

House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez said the House is considering a bill enabling the President to move quickly to provide basic necessities to indigent families and individuals affected by the imposition of a community quarantine or lockdown.

The measure, he said, would provide health care, including medical tests and treatment, to COVID-19 patients and infected persons under observation. It would also establish a program for their recovery, rehabilitation and social amelioration.

The President would be authorized to buy testing kits, lease properties and build medical facilities without going through the standard rules on procurement, and to require businesses to prioritize contracts for materials and services related to fighting COVID-19.

Any person who violates the rules and directives of the government faces imprisonment of two months and a fine of P10,000.00 to P1 million.

Allies of Duterte in the House are set to authorize him to realign budget items and use off-budget funds of government corporations to provide emergency subsidies to the estimated 16.5 million poor and low-income families hit the hardest by the pandemic.

Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte said: “They are the No. 1 beneficiaries because they are the most affected by the economic slowdown resulting from the community quarantine and similar personal-movement restrictions imposed by local governments.”

Under the bill, the President will be required to report to the Congress every month the status of the emergency programs.

The House is also eyeing the conversion of selected public buildings into temporary hospitals or to put up tents as annexes to health facilities treating COVID-19 patients, as the acceleration of testing capacity is expected to identify a bigger number of victims.

The health department said that 120,500 more test kits have just arrived from China, South Korea and Brunei. Aside from the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine in Muntinlupa City, the department has designated as testing laboratories the Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center, Lung Center of the Philippines in Quezon City, Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu, and the Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City.

Other facilities being prepared or assessed as possible extension laboratories are the Western Visayas Medical Center, Bicol Public Health Laboratory, Makati Medical Center, The Medical City in Pasig City, Chinese General Hospital in Manila, and St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City and the one in Bonifacio Global City.

Microbiologists at the National Institutes of Health of UP-Manila, meanwhile, have invented a cheaper testing kit that gives results faster, but it is still going through field validation. The Food and Drug Administration has approved for local use eight different kits imported from South Korea, China, Singapore and Germany.

Given its limited number of test kits at present, the health department has tested only 1,399 persons as of Saturday.

In contrast, the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tested 234,998 as of last week, or an average of 19,000 per day, through drive-through stations where people got tested in just 10 minutes and informed of the results through voice calls or text messages in six hours.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 24, 2020)

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