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I am writing this while on the plane, heading back home after spending a few weeks in Europe to attend a friend’s lovely wedding. I was in Spain when they had a surge, and a number of my friends got Covid. Thankfully, they were all very mild cases. Some, in fact, had no idea they were infected, which goes to show that if the variant is mild, and with a country that’s highly vaccinated – Spain has vaccinated 85.6 percent of its population – life goes on. In the Philippines, we have 70 million fully vaxxed, but with boosters quite low at 14.5 million.
We want people to travel to the Philippines. Our entry requirements have kept pace with other countries’. And even as I saw how I and my wife sometimes got carried away with precautions – like spraying everything with disinfectant – that did not stop us from living our lives and seeing old friends, even if they are overseas.
In other countries, people have chosen to go on with their lives while they apply the most basic of public health protocols, like wearing well-fitting masks in public transportation where they will be in close proximity to other people.
The countries I have visited – Italy, France and Spain – are all under the CDC’s Level 3 travel risk classification. The Philippines is under the lowest travel risk classification, Level 1. And while the Philippines remains under a state of public health emergency, Italy and Spain have lifted them, and hard-hit France has eased most of its restriction measures. These countries have been enjoying a return of tourists, and businesses are carrying on as before.
It’s also worth noting that these three countries have boostered at least 50 percent of their population, and they have vaccinated close to 80 percent. The Philippines, meanwhile, seems to have acquired immunity thanks to the spread of the milder Omicron variant.
This was the same situation when I visited the US a few months back. They mask up when indoors, especially when inside public transportation, but that is pretty much it. No checking of vaccination cards, no restrictions in movement. I noticed that the elderly and a few tourists mask up even when outdoors, but that is out of a choice to protect themselves.
What we do have in common is we are all experiencing the effects of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Inflation is driving up prices everywhere, exacerbating problems and inefficiencies that were heretofore just tacked up as costs of doing business. Like us, they, too, felt the direct impact the pandemic has had on the small and medium businesses. Many have also suffered through it.
So do we really need a state of emergency at this point? Or should we just firm up our protocols on health, which should be, wear face masks indoors and make it optional outdoors? Should we really expend so much energy on details, or should we ask the bigger, harder question of how come our vaccination rates have all but stalled, only to come to life again when the fear of a surge began making headlines?
Maybe the threat of a higher alert level was enough to send people back to the vaccination centers. However, it’s a double-edged sword. In truth, higher infection rates should not translate to a higher alert level unless they result in severe cases that require hospitalization. Some may be wondering why our hospitalization levels remain low even as vaccination rates have stagnated. I believe acquired immunity has been a big factor. Because we had our vaccinations at a time when the milder Omicron made its way through the population, we benefited from the natural immunity without the more severe effects of the deadlier Delta, or even the earlier variants.
However, reports of higher infection rates bring fear, and that is something we can’t afford right now when there is a very real, very severe threat out there that, to my mind, is far more debilitating than Omicron: high prices.
One other thing decreases mobility faster than an ECQ, and that is high prices. I am told that there are fewer cars on EDSA these days, and people have become more hesitant to go out and spend. Couple that with the fear of contracting Covid and you have a population that’s less willing to participate in the economy. Slap a higher alert level and you paralyze those who are willing to go out and keep our engines running. If we start increasing our alert levels because of rising infections – in the middle of rising prices, no less – we can kiss our chances of recovery goodbye.
We need to change our mindset. We can’t go into panic mode or be paralyzed when we see infection rates going up. This is not the way we are going to learn to live with Covid. The basis should always be healthcare utilization rates. The medical experts themselves are saying that it is still possible to be infected with Covid even after you’ve been vaccinated and even with acquired immunity. What the vaccine does prevent is severe illness and death, and that should be the metric by which we decide whether or not to raise alert levels.
We do not lock down during the flu season or even when dengue cases rise to historic numbers. People stay home to get well, we fumigate to get rid of the mosquitoes, and go to the hospital if we feel symptoms getting worse.
The pandemic has hurt many entrepreneurs, big and small alike, but it is the small ones who were less capable of riding out the crisis. They have incurred more debt, and the lucky ones are under restructuring. Meanwhile, as the US Federal Reserve increases interest rates, borrowing rates in the Philippines will be affected and we might see a weakening peso.
Prices are rising at levels that can discourage consumers because people simply cannot afford to spend. This is the point when we get something worse than inflation: stagflation, when high prices and slower economic activity sends a country’s economy to stall.
If this conflict does not end soon, we will see inflation levels we have not seen in our lifetime. My personal view is, with stagflation and our debt being what it is, we won’t have much room to maneuver. I fear that even if we increase interest rates, we might not be able to stop this.
So if I were made to choose between stagflation and Omicron, I would rather have Omicron, because it is milder.