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In a recent phone conversation I had with Health Secretary Francisco Duque, I explained why and how we should eventually adopt a public health warning system that is similar to public storm warning signals.
The Secretary, as always, was open and accommodating to my suggestions, and it reminded me of similar conversations I had with Benhur Abalos who had competently held the reins of the MMDA through the crucial parts of the pandemic. It was sad to see him go, but we are grateful for his leadership. He rallied the Metro Manila mayors and joined the private sector’s call for an early lockdown in the NCR on Aug. 8, 2021, enabling us to head off the rise in cases due to the Delta variant and save the fourth quarter. The Philippines’s 7.7 percent GDP growth in the fourth quarter is testament to his contribution.
Working alongside former chairman Abalos was a privilege. One of the perks of being at the frontlines of this pandemic was getting to know people in public service like him, Sec. Charlie Galvez, and Sec. Vince Dizon, whose efforts to safely herd the country through this crisis could only be described as heroic.
Dr. Edsel Salvana was always ready with his expert analysis and insight, and Dr. Myrna Cabotaje of the DOH’s National Vaccination Operations Center adeptly handled the vaccinations across the archipelago. Sec. Karlo Nograles and the rest of the IATF, as well as the economic team, were equally up to the task. We are grateful for their efforts.
Credit must also go to Defense Chief Sec. Delfin Lorenzana and DILG Sec. Eduardo Año, who both stood alongside us – sometimes across from us…but that comes with the territory – and were fearless in battling the pandemic, even as they too, caught COVID and are now battle-scarred veterans of this war.
The pandemic was an opportunity to show what the private sector can offer the government. The T3 task force and Go Negosyo brought private sector expertise to pandemic management. Through our Go Negosyo townhall meetings, business organizations gave voice to the millions of Filipinos who were worried about their livelihoods. And on the science side, we were in the expert hands of OCTA Research, which time and again proved how data is indispensable to guiding decisions. The public and private sector, working together, is really the very definition of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
I believe we are at a cusp in our battle against this two-year war. The Metro Manila mayors have expressed their desire to move to Alert Level 1, which now seems to be our new normal. This is significant because it represents a de-escalation.
From the stories and commentaries in the media, I think Filipinos want to move on. Nobody wants to stay in a pandemic mindset and live in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety. That is why it is important to make a clear transition from being afraid to being hopeful. We now know more about the virus. We have antivirals we can take if we get infected, and our healthcare workers know how to treat us when we get sick.
For us in the business sector, the worst part of the pandemic was the unpredictability. In business, we love a predictable, calculable future because it allows us to plan.
I believe that changing our framework from being in a constant state of fear to a state of readiness is important if we are to truly transition. It’s the Philippines’ long play to living with COVID. Whenever a public health emergency happens, the government simply pulls out the public health warning system and down the line, hospitals will know when to get ready and people will also be alerted to be careful.
Of course, it will be up to the government’s pandemic response team to define the parameters, but I think the most important trigger should be hospital utilization rate. Judging from the data so far, it seems that infection rates do not have much of an effect on hospitalization. Even if the infection rates are high, people need not be afraid of dying in the hospital parking lot as there will be available beds and healthcare professionals to treat them.
Government should also define the minimum public health safety protocols that must always be in place. The private sector is ready to contribute to these efforts; I believe this partnership with the government has served us well in the past two years.
I think vaccination cards should continue to be required for indoor business establishments. This can reduce the risk of exposing the unvaccinated, and encourage them to get vaccinated. Same with boosters, eventually, as primary vaccination cards will be rendered expired once they lapse beyond the prescribed time.
I think the next few months, as we live under Alert Level 1, will be the correct time to explore how much more we can go beyond the limitations we imposed on ourselves during the last two years. OCTA Research sees smooth sailing ahead for the next six months, so we should sail while the sun is shining. Let’s get enough momentum to push for growth in the first half of the year. I recall how we took a leap of faith in August last year, and how it paid off with GDP growth in the fourth quarter of 2021. We can do it again.
With no variants of concern on the horizon and hospital capacity at low risk, it is not too far-fetched to believe that the public health emergency status can be lifted, and with it the alert level systems.
This would be a great way for the administration to finish its term. Ending on a high note, with a protected population and a healthy economy, is a legacy any sitting president would be happy to have.