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In order to understand something, one has to turn away from it on occasion. This much I found was true during my visit to the US.
I watched the Golden State Warriors game live in San Francisco and it was a packed indoor arena. This was the first time I’ve been outside of the Philippines in two years, and definitely my first time in a massive public event since the pandemic shut down most of everything around the world in 2020.
Looking around, I saw a stadium full of masked faces. I am told California is one of the strictest among the US states when it comes to COVID safety protocols. They are very firm with mask compliance and vaccination cards. It was particularly difficult for me and my family since, obviously, our vaccination cards were issued in the Philippines, and we needed to prove every time that they were ours by showing them our identification cards.
It’s as different from the situation as could be in the Philippines. Businesses have opened, people are hanging out at cafés and restaurants, going to gyms, visiting friends, and basically moving on with life.
I am told things are quite different in other states where mask mandates are nonexistent and people are more preoccupied with whether or not children should wear masks at school. It is a strange world and quite different from what we’re used to in the Philippines.
The positivity rate here is about the same as the NCR right now: 17 percent. There is an average of a little over 1,100 cases reported each day and 82 percent of their population – adults and children – are fully vaccinated. Of course, the population is 14 times smaller than Metro Manila, but it is quite amazing to see with one’s own eyes what “moving on from the pandemic” is like in real-life terms.
I am glad that our push for Alert Level 2 has been heard. With cases going down and Omicron seemingly manageable, it didn’t make sense to continue restricting mobility now that we know so much more about how to manage COVID and how to prevent transmissions. I am also quite relieved that facility quarantines have been eliminated, paving the way for so many of our homesick kababayans to finally come home.
So what’s next? I believe we can rationalize the alert level system and take a cue from how our country manages typhoon warnings. We don’t have public storm signal warnings everyday because we’ve learned that a light shower or thunderstorm is not enough to shut down schools or tell people to stay home. There is no surefire way to prevent a typhoon from entering the country, just as there is no guarantee we can keep away future variants of COVID.
Instead we should focus on the strict implementation of mandatory health protocols, such as the proper wearing of face masks and the requirement of vaccination cards. Truth be told, indoor establishments can’t keep operating at limited capacities and still expect to make enough money to consider it a “return to normal”.
I believe we should allow restaurants and retail establishments to decide on the safety protocols that would be best for their staff and their customers. However, face masks should remain mandatory for all. This will protect everyone from people who may not be manifesting any symptoms at all, but are nevertheless infectious.
I think that after two years, Filipinos already know by now what is a safe place to enter and how they should keep themselves safe even when in an indoor setting, in crowds, and in situations where they have to remove their masks.
What I am keeping an eye on in the next few weeks are the schools. With more than 40 million of the country’s 109-plus million Filipinos under the age of 19, the reopening of face-to-face classes will spur so much mobility it’s only right that we make sure everything goes smoothly.
We should allow only fully vaccinated children from fully vaccinated households or those with no unvaccinated senior citizens in the household. Perhaps we can provide some leeway for households that are 70 percent vaccinated or in communities with 80 percent vaccination rates. This will not only minimize the risks for the vulnerable, it is hoped that it will encourage the vaccine holdouts to get their shots and encourage LGUs to also ramp up their vaccinations.
There is still time to lay down plans for the Philippines’s exit from the pandemic. We will soon call for a town hall meeting with the private sector to exchange views on how best to move on. With only four months to go before a new administration, I think it is important to ensure continuity in the pandemic response. However the political winds blow, there is a need for a firm, steady hand on our health situation so that all that hard work and sacrifice do not go to waste.
Bottom line is, we have to move on. The first and second quarters of 2022 must be a period of growth, low alert levels, and the strict implementation of health protocols, children ready to safely return to school, and a country that is no longer afflicted by COVID.
Let the final months of this administration be defined by how well it delivered despite two years of a crippling pandemic – a strong economy and a healthy population.