"Our situation is not optimal, but it is far from dismal, either."
No, the Philippines is not back to square one.
That is according to former Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral, who served during the Arroyo administration, as the average number of daily coronavirus cases abruptly surged in recent weeks.
Instead, former Secretary Cabral believes the country regressed ten steps from square one.
This is, however, an unfair and inaccurate characterization of the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most health stakeholders agree that the surge in COVID-19 cases was caused by the mutation of new coronavirus variants and the relaxed adherence to health protocols resulting from the opening of the country’s economy.
In a statement posted on Twitter by Dr. Tony Leachon, the good Secretary expressed her concerns that the present state of things seem to be back the way they were when the pandemic first hit our country, leading to months of community quarantine.
Cabral’s statement implicitly claims that despite all the efforts done in the past year, the government has failed to effectively address the onslaught of the COVID-19 virus and significantly curb the trajectory of this pandemic.
But this is where, in my mind, Secretary Cabral is wrong.
Square one was when our healthcare system was ill-prepared to respond to the virus and our doctors had limited knowledge on its clinical management. Square one was when our COVID-19 testing capability was very limited and all that we relied on was the five molecular laboratories that we had then. Square one was when the only way out that our government saw moving forward was forcing a lockdown, consequently leading to an unprecedented economic crisis.
With all due respect to Secretary Cabral, the Philippines is not back to square one, nor it is ten steps from square one.
From five molecular laboratories a year ago, now we have more than two hundred testing centers, with a total testing capacity of more than 15,000 tests daily. To augment the limited bed capacity available for COVID-19 patients, the government established around 600 temporary treatment and monitoring facilities, with a total bed capacity that can accommodate more than 22,000 COVID-19 patients.
Our contract tracing capacity has likewise improved, complemented by the growing use of digital contact tracing tools. Not only are we able to expand our ability to screen the infected from the rest of the population, our doctors and other healthcare professionals know more about the disease and know better on how to manage their patients, resulting in a high recovery rate of more than 90 percent. Not to mention our medical frontliners who tirelessly risk their health and safety just to make sure that our healthcare centers continue to operate and provide the needed service. As a result of all these efforts, our country was able to somehow keep our coronavirus numbers stable from August 2020 to February this year.
Indeed, the present COVID-19 situation in the country is far from optimal. But it is not anywhere close to dismal either. Thanks to the government’s efforts with support from the private sector, the country is in a much better shape and more equipped to respond to the pandemic.
On March 26, the Philippines recorded its highest-ever number of confirmed infections in a day, at 9,838 cases. But it would be important to put this sudden rise of COVID-19 infections in context. For example, as of writing, of a population of more than one hundred million Filipinos, there are around 712 thousand coronavirus cases in the country, of which close to 600 thousand have recovered from their infection. To date, there remains about 100 thousand active COVID-19 patients undergoing treatment or in quarantine. Deaths due to COVID-19 however remain low at more than thirteen thousand.
True, every life matters, and all efforts must be exerted to ensure the full recovery of every COVID-19 patient. But it is good to compare our situation with the COVID-19 statistics in select countries. On the same date of March 27, for example, India had close to 11 million COVID-19 cases out of its 1.3 billion population, registering a surge of 600 new cases. Mexico has more than two million COVID-10 cases out of its population of 127 million, adding close to five thousand new cases on March 27 and more than five hundred new deaths. On the same day, Ukraine had more than 1.6 million active cases, with close to 12 thousand new cases and two hundred deaths while Belgium, which has a total population of 11.4 million, has now more than 850,000 cases, with more than five thousand cases of COVID-19 related deaths. Among the worst COVID-19 situations is in Brazil, which is home to more than 200 million people, where there are a total of 12.5 million cases, including a single-day surge of more than 85,000 new cases.
What the situation appears to prove, though, is that the emergence of new COVID-19 variants seems to have resulted in a resurgence of the virus even in developed countries in Europe and the United States. It is no surprise therefore that these mutations would result in a significant increase of COVID-19 cases. The government is fully aware of this and is working hard to put its acts together to abate the sharp increase of COVID-19 infections.
The recent imposition of tighter restrictions, in order to limit mobility and thus curb the spread of the virus, is a step in the right direction. But, we now know better that lockdowns alone cannot solve the problem. At the very least, all it can do is to delay possible infections, unless effort is taken to provide a more durable and responsive solution that will take into consideration the economic repercussions that will result from a protracted community quarantine. A nationwide digital contract tracing system, for example, has been long overdue. An economic recovery plan is also of utmost urgency. Most important is the need to come up with a more effective and efficient vaccine rollout. The sooner we can get to inoculate as many people with the vaccines, the sooner can we put an end to this crisis.
What the people need to understand is that they too have an important role to play in carrying out a durable and responsive solution to COVID-19. It may seem to be a familiar refrain, but observing minimum health standards and safety protocols, such as maintaining physical distancing, correct wearing of face marks, and frequent hand washing, continue to be one of the surest ways to stop the spread of the infection.
Neither the already worrying situation would be helped by providing inaccurate and unreliable conclusions about the pandemic. When the fears and uncertainties are high, there is always a huge risk for these statements to gain traction and significantly negate even factual information, especially when such disinformation is repeated and amplified, including by influential people. A fair and truthful presentation of facts, including a full comparative context, is important, in order for our country to get through this crisis in the best way possible.