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Friday, June 14, 2024


"Corporate largesse also makes common sense."

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Last Friday I sat through most of a well-attended webinar on ivermectin sponsored by the Philippine-American Association of Science and Engineering. PAASE brings together thousands of Filipino scientists and engineers from the home country and elsewhere in the world—truly a notable undertaking as our country remains plagued, not by lack of talent, but by resource shortages unameliorated by politicians and bureaucrats.

There were a lot of doctors in the room who must have appreciated the medical jargon flying over my head. Luckily I’ve taken enough statistics classes to follow most of the technical discussion about random controlled testing and meta-analysis. My key takeaways:

By academic standards, much of the evidence for ivermectin is “low in certainty,” meaning it is likely to change as new findings come in. This is why health officials are urging us to wait a few more weeks until the results of over 70 ongoing tests come in. The best they can do for now is a “compassionate usage” exception.

However, if the upside from the drug is still not certain, the downside from it is much clearer: Not much. Very few adverse side effects are on the record–a reason why it has survived for decades as an essential remedy against parasites that is administered in some countries even by illiterates, even to patients 2 years old.

Thus, on balance, we have “low certainty” upside supported by mountains of evidence from anecdotal up to meta-analytical; no downside; cheap beyond belief (only P35 per dose); and—most importantly—the only accessible alternative for hundreds of millions in the developing world until the developed countries get tired of hoarding their vaccines.

In a pandemic, avoiding deaths should always take precedence—over analytical rigor, bureaucratic rules, or anything else. This was pretty clear to the keynote speaker, British doctor Tess Lawrie, whose passion on this point outshone our local academicians, not to mention our unfeeling bureaucrats.

* * *

If the ivermectin lobbyists are pushing ahead where our health bureaucrats still fear to tread, many of the country’s largest businesses are pitching in—following our time-honored bayanihan tradition—where the bureaucrats are coming up short.

SM Supermalls is leveraging on its longstanding relationships with the local government units it is present in, by launching a mall-based mass vaccination program. To date it has already rolled out the program at its malls in Rosario, Cavite; Pulilan, Bulacan; and Olongapo City.

Not to be outdone, the group of former (and future?) presidential candidate Manny Villar also launched its own vaccination program, christened “Vhealthy.” The other Manny—Pangilinan or MVP—will be providing much-needed meals to the overworked employees of government hospitals in Metro Manila.

Perhaps the most pervasive presence comes from San Miguel. My fellow columnist here, Tony Lopez, writes that SMC converted its liquor plants at the start of the pandemic in order to produce alcohol. It gave away 1.6 Million liters of alcohol together with thousands of personal protective equipment (PPE) units, and has ordered a million doses of vaccine for its employees and the indigent.

Looking farther ahead—perhaps with an eye as well towards business diversification—SMC’s Ramon Ang plans to put up two large hospitals. One will be a teaching hospital in Biñan, Laguna, with medical and nursing school tie-ups. The other is a state of the art facility to be built alongside his huge aerocity project in Bulacan, which he hopes will include a US medical institutional partner.

Apart from simple compassion, it’s the national bottom line that also motivates these flinty-hearted tycoons. The Hong Kong bank HSBC has successively downgraded its economic forecast for the year to only 6.3 percent growth, well below government numbers of 6.5 to 7.5 percent, and not enough to recover from the nearly 10-percent contraction suffered last year. Unless the pandemic’s drag on growth is permanently lifted by enough vaccinations, it may be a gloomy Christmas by year-end for employers as well as their employees.

* * *

All the sad news we’re hearing these days about friends and even relatives succumbing to the virus has gotten many people to thinking more often about the hereafter—the ethereal and the eternal.

In today’s Gospel (Jn 3: 7b-15), in this second week of the Easter season, Jesus explains to Nicodemus the fundamental connection between Easter and eternity:

“No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Twice was Jesus to be lifted up: first through the Cross, and then through the Resurrection and Ascension. As we slog through our own forty days in the desert, the promise contained in the second uplifting should gladden our hearts and fortify our spirits.

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