Where do we go from here?

We’re back to stricter restrictions in Metro Manila and nearby provinces starting today until Easter Sunday. The situation is far worse now than before because, for one, the reported number of daily infections has been growing by the thousands.

The first time the National Capital Region was placed under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), the Department of Health (DoH) was reporting just a two-digit jump in coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases a day with the total at 140 cases on March 15, 2020.

The daily infection of 9,838 last Friday was the highest recorded since the first case was monitored in the country on Jan. 30, 2020. The next day, the DoH reported 9,595 new infections, slightly lower, but still close to 10,000 in a single day.

More than a week ago, when the daily surge of cases was hitting between 5,000 and 7,000, experts from the University of the Philippines OCTA research team had proposed placing Metro Manila under either a “hard” general community quarantine (hard GCQ) or a “soft” modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ).

Government policy makers, however, did not take heed right away, and acted only when the daily surge neared 10,000 cases.

Although most of the new infections have mild or no symptoms, the spread of the virus is quite alarming, and there are still people dying.

Just yesterday, I heard about a husband and wife and a father and son who died one after the other. Hospitals are nearing full capacity; some are no longer accepting new patients while others have been seeking for medical staff support because they’re already overcapacity.

Despite the large number of new infections, we have yet to see decisive action from government agencies in charge of responding to the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Community lockdowns may stem the tide of infections temporarily, but after a week, people will go out again to earn a living. Then, cases will rise again.

The government, both national and local, have to be aggressive in seeing to it that the health guidelines are followed, and make sure that they observe the same. How can they expect people to follow rules that leaders and enforcers themselves violate?

What’s more disgusting is seeing Palace spokesman Harry Roque insulting critics, making annoying faces on television, and boasting about what he claimed as the administration’s “excellent” response to COVID-19, which is far from reality.

Then there’s chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo proclaiming that the vaccine is not necessary to curb COVID-19 infections, and that the government need not declare a lockdown, claiming that New Zealand and Vietnam managed to contain infections without declaring a lockdown.

“Paulit-ulit ko pong sasabihin sa inyo, we don’t need a lockdown. We don’t need even (sic) a vaccine, kung sa totoo lang, kung tayo lang ay susundin lang natin ‘yung minimum health protocols . . . Tignan niyo [ang] New Zealand, Vietnam and Taipei, anong ginawa nila? Nag-lockdown ba sila? Hindi,” Panelo said in his talk show “Counterpoint” aired on the government broadcast channels last March 16.

After the Duterte administration has borrowed at least $1.2 billion, or around P58.5 billion, for the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines and the President’s chief legal adviser says “we don’t need a vaccine” to prevent COVID-19, you’d probably not be surprised why we’re in a messy situation now as far as curbing COVID-19 infections is concerned.

Despite the huge loans, which taxpayers will sooner or later be paying, there’s too much confusion about the government’s inoculation program. The 12-item priority list has not been followed strictly as some local government officials and public personalities have been able to jump the line.

Well, what can we expect when President Rodrigo Duterte himself defended and justified the inoculation of his security aides, using smuggled vaccines from China.

The national government budgeted P82.5 billion for the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines, of which P70 billion will come from loans and additional revenues, classified as unprogrammed funds in the 2021 General Appropriations Act.

Of these loans, $500 million will come from the World Bank under the Philippines Covid-19 Emergency Response Project-Additional Financing; $400 million from the Asian Development Bank under the Second Health System Enhancement to Address and Limit Covid-19 (HEAL 2), sourced from the Asia Pacific Vaccine Facility; and $300 million from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank under the HEAL 2 program.

If we are to believe Sen. Panfilo Lacson, the Duterte administration’s borrowings have reached $2.4 billion, or P126.75 billion, including $1.2 billion borrowed from April to December 2020, also from the WB, ADB and AIIB.

What is clear now is that the funds for vaccine procurement are available, yet people are asking where the vaccines are. What have the team led by vaccine czar Carlito Galvez done to bring in the vaccines? Did he listen to Panelo that vaccines are not needed to contain COVID-19?

The OCTA research team has said that following the minimum health standards of washing of hands, wearing face masks and shields and keeping physical distance of at least one meter is not enough to prevent COVID-19 infections, particularly now that majority of those infected are asymptomatic.

Perhaps, it would be good if Panelo and Roque would just shut up, even for just a few months. They’re spreading disinformation amid a pandemic. We would be better off with Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, concurrent co-chairman of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, who looks and sounds far more credible than the two senior jesters at the Palace.

Nograles may be able to better articulate where the administration is taking us amid this worsening situation. After the week-long ECQ in Metro Manila and nearby provinces, what’s next for us?

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.
This column also appeared in The Manila Times.

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