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A skip and a hop


We need a skip and a hop soon, because being just a step ahead of another COVID-19 surge is simply not enough. In the near future, COVID mutations will continue to outpace medical advances intended to eliminate the virus. Medical science will continue to play catch-up at least until the end of the year. So, what’s next for us, under a new government, will matter a lot.

On May 9, less than three months from now, a new government will be elected, to take office by June 30. By then, half the fiscal year will be done, and perhaps also at least half of the annual national budget. And, as with any administration change, it will take a month or two to reorganize the bureaucracy and for Congress to start working on a new legislative agenda. No, the new administration will not hit the ground running.

Also, as with any transition period, little may be expected by way of continuity. Policies, programs or projects started or initiated between 2016 and 2022 will not necessarily be kept or continue on. The same will go for the COVID-related strategy and programs at the national level. At the local level, reelection of incumbents will determine the life cycle of anti-COVID projects.

It is safe to presume that national and regional lockdowns are things of the past, including the use of plastic face shields, unless in the extreme possibility of another major COVID surge. Further restrictions on people movement will be among the last options, but local lockdowns remain a possibility. And the mandatory use of masks in public will certainly continue, indefinitely.

In the case of Makati City where I live, from March 2021 to date, it saw the number of local COVID cases peak at 1,544 on April 22, 2021 (old variant), then on Sept. 9, 2021 at 3,298 (Delta), then on Jan. 30, 2022 at 2,435 (Omicron). Since the Delta peak, which was the worse COVID period so far, the “interventions” have not been as severe despite Omicron cases rising.

The mitigating factors include the massive vaccination effort since 2021 as well as people themselves also learning to “live” with the virus and to self-regulate their movement. As Delta tapered during Christmas season 2021, it seemed like the “normal” was well on its way. On Dec. 10, Makati City reported only 18 active cases. Unfortunately, Omicron came along, and got the better of us.

Complacency was the enemy. We celebrated the holidays with gusto, relying on the false hope that COVID was on its way out. But it came back with a vengeance. Omicron found its way here and wreaked havoc. However, as more and more people got sick, the healthcare system managed to cope. Thanks to a “weaker” virus, perhaps, but not necessarily to new or more effective interventions.

With the case count declining and Metro Manila back at Alert Level 2 until the end of February, are we to expect complacency to rear its ugly ahead once again? In the case of another surge, whether or not due to a new variant, what else are the government and people prepared to do other than the usual interventions? Do we still bother to improve our pandemic management? Or, is this as good as it gets?

Moreover, with COVID cases dropping, are we being misled to believe that things are “normal” enough for us to actual hold national and local elections by May 9 in the usual manner — people lining up at voting precincts to fill up ballots? Other than requiring masks, and physical distancing (if at all possible), are we introducing other interventions to ensure public health during the polls? Or, again, is this as good as it gets?

Offhand, we seem to be a step ahead in terms of managing another surge. It also seemed like we did better in managing Omicron than Delta. Although, in my opinion, we didn’t actually do anything new and relied simply on our ability to vaccinate more people. But as we know, the efficacy of vaccines wane over time. And, obviously, we cannot simply continue to “boost” people indefinitely. We need to skip and hop now.

With Omicron, it seemed like luck was on our side. But, will the case be the same when the next variant or surge comes along? It is the responsibility of any incoming administration to determine to what extent we can keep the case count low. They should already be thinking of new ways, methods, approaches, and interventions to further improve and to future-proof pandemic management.

Vaccination, bio-surveillance, testing, contact tracing, localized lockdowns, physical distancing, and masks may be tried and tested interventions, but they will not always work in the future. We should be preparing for future pandemics, after living through a very devastating one in the last two years. We need to review which temporary ad hoc interventions will have to be made permanent, and what other interventions may be required in similar events in the future.

More important, we should look into continuity and permanence of time-bound strategies and interventions that actually worked, and then improve them. Ad-hoc task forces should be replaced by permanent institutions devoted to dealing with pandemics and the like. Otherwise, as governance goes back to Square One on June 30 as a new administration takes office, so does our pandemic management.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council

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