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Saint Blaise and the coronavirus

"There is always a long list of what was done wrong, but what we need now is an even longer list of what and how things could be done better."

February 3 is the memorial of the martyr Saint Blaise, the third-century physician-turned-bishop of Sebaste in ancient Armenia. Known for healing in his time, in our day his prayer and protection invoked against diseases of the throat. During today’s mass, Catholics will receive the traditional blessing which is given by touching the throat of each person with two candles blessed during yesterday’s feast of the Presentation of the Lord and which has been joined together in the form a cross, sometimes by a red ribbon, the color of martyrdom.

The intercession of Saint Blaise is particularly timely given the growing concerns over the incidence of the novel coronavirus, including in the Philippines. As of writing, there are two confirmed cases in the country. At the epicenter of this global health emergency, though, is the city of Wuhan, China where more than 11,000 individuals have been confirmed to have the new coronavirus.

What we know about coronaviruses is that they belong to a large family of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses. The same kind of virus that can cause the common cold, or worse, pneumonia and bronchitis. However, in some rare cases, coronaviruses have evolved and spread from animals, where it is more prevalent, to humans. This is what happened with the coronaviruses known as the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-Cov), both of which are known to cause more severe symptoms.

The novel coronavirus outbreak happened during the Christmas and Chinese New Year holidays. As a result, many countries were caught unaware of this growing medical emergency, especially in confirming cases of person-to-person transmission of the virus.

The Philippine government’s response to the novel coronavirus was, at best, sluggish, given the wait-and-see attitude that it seemed to take at the onset of the outbreak. Our country has successfully prevented before the incidence of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-Cov), but there are concerns that there is a lot to be desired in its current response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Critics point out that while neighboring countries have started to suspend flights to and from China, it took some more time for the Philippine government to follow suit. It seemed that what caused the indecision was that the government allegedly cared more for its relations with China, than the health of its population. Despite the growing cases of coronavirus cases in mainland China, Chinese tourists continued to travel to tourist destinations in the Philippines, until this weekend, when President Rodrigo Roa Duterte finally imposed a temporary travel ban to and from the Chinese mainland.

The growing concern, and even panic, over a possible coronavirus outbreak in the Philippine is of course understandable. The growing number of Chinese tourists and workers in the country cannot escape the attention of the local population who seem to identify the virus with the country from which it originated. Social media is replete with anecdotes about Chinese individuals being discriminated against and even refused services by hotels, transport services and other establishments for fear that they might be carriers of the coronavirus. Not even the Philippine Red Cross was spared from criticism when it decided to send face masks to China, given that the local supply in the Philippines was thought to be limited.

What is even more lamentable is the growing political bickering over recent decisions, or rather indecision, of the Philippine government. True, the government’s response was less than satisfactory. The Department of Health should have been more aggressive and transparent in addressing misinformation related to the virus, and should have been more forthcoming in preventing fake reports and setting up response protocols. Having a wait-and-see attitude did not help, especially when the people expected a more decisive policy direction from health authorities.

Sadly, critics of the present administration have taken advantage of this health emergency in order to launch a political offensive against President Duterte. #OustDuterte was trending in social media a few days ago, a rather insensitive call when we should all be rolling up our sleeves and working together in response to this impending health crisis. Has politics gone that low so as to take a public health emergency as a political leverage for the opposition?

I remember more than six years ago, when former Aquino administration failed miserably to respond with haste in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan, residents of the affected communities cared less about politics, and never asked for the ouster of former President Noynoy Aquino. The local officials and businessmen even asked him to declare martial law so that with his expanded powers, he could more effectively direct the response efforts and steep up the public safety and security in the devasted areas. Did we asked President Aquino to resign? No. For one simple reason, that despite our anger and frustration, it was not the time for that.

Eventually, political accountability was exacted when Mar Roxas and other national candidates allied with the Aquino administration lost miserably in two succeeding elections, further cementing public support for President Duterte. If there is one strong reason why the people of Leyte and Samar supported him, it was because less than 72 hours after typhoon Haiyan made landfall, the then-mayor of Davao was the first local government official to bring aid and relief to the survivors of the typhoon. See, both the good and the bad, we never forgot.

But even to talk about ousting President Duterte at this time when all of us should be rallying behind our government is an insult to the countless people in government who have been working hard to respond to this coronavirus crisis. How many doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals are now risking their own health and well-being in order to attend to suspected coronavirus cases? How many nameless people in government have been working day and night to come up with workable solutions to this health emergency, with little time to care about their own homes and families?

Nobody wishes to absolve the President or anyone from his administration of any responsibility over the handling of this crisis. He will have to be accountable for that at the proper time. Criticism is welcome, but there is a greater need for constructive solutions. As in any crisis, there is always a long list of what was done wrong, but what we need now is an even longer list of what and how things could be done better.

In fact, these politically-loaded commentaries appear to drown the needed public health information in social media. Instead of calling for the President’s ouster, and proposing that his constitutional successor could do a better job—why not share more reliable and objective information about the coronavirus and its effects? Instead of fueling a health scare, why not assure the people that the best and most effective response to the coronavirus is to follow the usual flu season protocol?

Observe good hygiene. Wash hands with soap and water. Avoid ill people. Stay home and avoid crowded places, if possible. Be more informed about how coronavirus can spread between an infected persons and others. Have a healthy lifestyle and sleep right to boost your immune system. If you have colds or cough, seek medical care right away. Wear a face mask, but only when needed. In most cases, all you need to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.

None of these require that we ask the President to resign or to oust him from office. This is a public health emergency, for which the proper health solutions must be employed. For those who those who choose to play politics over the health of Filipinos - the political course of action that they propose is crass and plain irresponsible.

It is important not to allow cynicism, hatred, politics and selfish interests - to threaten our very survival. We cannot allow our self-centered actions to be the biggest threat to our existence. In doing otherwise, we risk self-destruction. But if in the face of a crisis, we hold to every shred of humanity in us, there is no war, disaster or disease that our shared action and common purpose cannot overcome.

“This is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumors. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma. We are all in this together.”—Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization.

Saint Blaise, pray for us!

Topics: Saint Blaise , Coronavirus , Rodrigo Duterte , World Health Organization

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