A precautionary and compassionate approach

"While compassion is the language of God, as Pope Francis so often says, hatred is the weapon of the devil."


(First of two parts)

As the deaths and number of confirmed infections of the virus originally known as 2019-nCoV and now named novel coronavirus surges around the world, scientists are scrambling to figure out the virus’ qualities and find a vaccine to this scourge. The death toll continues to rise with a total number of confirmed cases worldwide at more than 17,000 with nearly 400 fatalities as of first week of February, and present in dozens of countries. Last Feb. 2, Philippine health officials reported the second infection and first death in the country, the first fatality outside China.

The virus is characterized as a super-spreader, with the number of infections skyrocketing in so short a time. With so much uncertainty surrounding the nature and characteristics of the nCoV, it is understandable that people are panicking and extreme measures to stem the spread of infections have been implemented. The Chinese authorities have instituted draconian measures, locking down Wuhan, a city of 11 million, which is unprecedented. That lockdown has been extended to several cities and regions in China and countries are scrambling to evacuate their citizens out of Wuhan in emergency airlifts. In the meantime, airlines are suspending flights to and from Wuhan and even in the whole of China.

On the local front, the Philippine government has been criticized for its insipid, sluggish and indecisive response in the early days of the outbreak. The president initially refused to impose a travel ban, saying “it would not be fair to China.” Echoing his superior, Health Secretary Duque warned that banning Chinese tourists may have serious “political and diplomatic repercussions.” Because of lack of travel restrictions, a flight from Xiamen with more than 50 passengers was allowed to land in Davao and some 778 Chinese passengers of a cruise ship allowed to disembark in the port of Manila. Despite these obvious missteps, the government has finally issued a travel ban to and from China, and measures are in place to arrest the spread of the virus. Better late than never.

While disagreeing with his initial actions, I generally support Secretary Francisco Duque, whom I have worked with, and his team of professionals in the DOH. My only advice to them is to be completely transparent as they need to be, above all, credible during these times. There is much to disclose, for example, on the first death reported.

Given our limitations, it is best to adopt the precautionary approach by formulating a blueprint of and implementing preventive measures to address the potential of widespread infection. It must be a collective effort entrusted not solely to health officials but to everybody from the highest levels of government to the lowest, including barangay officials.

The opposition and private sector must be harnessed to its fullest. The President should stop attacking his perceived enemies and business leaders, many of whom like MVP, the Ayalas, and Lopezes are already at the forefront of the response to the Taal disaster and this virus scare.

Purveyors of fake news should be stopped at all costs. Fake news, as Secretary Duque puts it—is more viral than the virus, causes people to panic into making irrational decisions which do more harm than good to themselves and the public in general.

The precautionary approach is most suited when scientific uncertainty is most acute, like what we are seeing now with this potential pandemic. We do not know how long this will last, whether or not the contagion will subside and the virus exhaust itself like in previous epidemics such as SARS, Merscov, swine flu or ebola, or what treatments it will respond to.

Precaution must be complemented by a compassionate approach. Specifically, we must also fight hard to suppress a natural tendency to discriminate against the stranger, in this case Chinese nationals—simply because they belong to the at-most risk group. Derisive looks, hurtful comments, or maligning any ethnic or nationality group for its own sake is dehumanizing not only to the discriminated but more so to the one discriminating.

Continued tomorrow

Topics: 2019-nCoV , Francisco Duque , Wuhan , China , Health , Manila , Virus
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