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No doubt the Philippines was in a celebratory mood as our COVID numbers continue to reward our efforts to vaccinate. The number of new cases took a steep drop to three-digit levels and the positivity rate is well below the WHO’s recommended level. All around us, businesses started opening up, and our kababayans were looking forward to spending the holidays with their families.
But then word from South Africa came: there is a new COVID-19 variant, and it looks as if it is highly transmissible. One after the other, there was increased concern about its ability to evade immunity and the severity of the disease it can cause.
It should come as no surprise that new variants of the virus will emerge. It was never a question of if, only a question of when. But with variants a certainty, I believe it is time we aim for close to 100 percent vaccination in the Philippines.
If anything, this is a wake up call. Omicron has only made vaccine mandates urgent and justifiable. The country’s economy is at stake.
I believe the government’s decision to make COVID tests mandatory for on-site workers is a step in the right direction. It is only a step away from mandatory vaccinations, which I believe would make a lot of sense for everyone. An on-site worker who refuses to take the vaccine stands to spend upwards of P60,000 a year for weekly testing, whereas a vaccine is right there, free and available.
Those crying about the unfairness of requiring tests and vaccinations should take a long, hard look at what this pandemic is doing to our country’s economy. The NEDA had earlier estimated that the long-run total cost of the pandemic and quarantines for present and future generations of Filipinos stands at P41.4 trillion. Consumption and investments are expected to be lower due to reduced demand in sectors affected by the pandemic. And with businesses restricted, tax revenues will be lower unless they are allowed to operate at 100 percent capacity.
We are borrowing money, but we need growth to fund growing debt. When the infections start going up again, and the hospitals start filling up with the unvaccinated, this will again force lockdowns and businesses will once again not be allowed to operate at reasonable capacities. Businesses will be unable to contribute revenues, and consequently, our GDP will go down. We will be unable to pay our debt, and our credit rating will go down.
All because some of us refuse to be vaccinated. Getting everyone vaccinated is really about the common good.
But not all the burden should be on the individuals. Businesses should share the burden and stay vigilant. They should stay true to their word and strictly implement health protocols, check the vaccination cards, allow only the fully vaccinated to enjoy indoor services.
In this regard, I believe the national government’s drive to vaccinate millions of Filipinos during the National Vaccination Day is a proactive step that can help in slowing the spread of the virus.
We in the private sector are trying to gather as much information as fast as we can, and we are talking to experts to educate us further on this new variant. Always, we are trying to be a step ahead and anticipate. Even before news of Omicron happened, we put together a townhall meeting to discuss how the Philippines can head off another possible surge.
On Dec. 15, we will gather key government officials, data and medical experts, and our colleagues in the private sector at “VAX to the MAX: Preventing the Surge.” No doubt it will a spirited discussion and we hope to gather more information about how Omicron behaves to be able to plan ahead. It will give us a better perspective as we will have on hand representatives from different industries. We hope it will be a collaborative effort and we can work together to find solutions on how best to protect our employees, our customers, and our businesses.
We have done it before and headed off a damaging lockdown in the crucial fourth quarter by calling for the lockdown back in August. We can do it again, and we have proven that, with fortitude and the guidance of data, we are not entirely helpless.
We can protect those who are already vaccinated by fast-tracking the administration of booster shots, not only for healthcare workers, but also for our economic frontliners, especially those whose vaccine protection will wane earlier than most.I still believe while breakthroughs could increase with Omicron, vaccines can and will still prevent severe infections and hospitalization. On a wider level, the more countries are vaccinated, the fewer chances that mutations like Omicron can emerge. The experts themselves are telling us this. A vaccinated population is known to reduce the risk of mutations because it is when a virus spreads in more unvaccinated people that it has a chance to result in mutations. Mutations then lead to new variants.
No doubt Omicron has thrown the proverbial wrench into the machinery. But we now know more, and there are things we can do to protect ourselves and keep the economy afloat.