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Now that the NCR and most major cities and provinces remain on Alert Level 1 until the end of the month, we can take some time to step back and reassess what to expect after Alert Level 1. What happens when we continue to log fewer new infections and our healthcare utilization remains at low risk? What would life be like under this new alert level?
At the moment, the only safeguards we have in place are facemasks and vaccination cards. With vaccination cards having an expiry date, and unless we have enough people boostered to make it possible to require booster cards instead, that leaves us with the face mask mandates.
My proposal for an “Alert Level Zero” or the downgraded alert level from Alert Level 1 is this: allow business owners to develop protocols that they think are useful to them. Trust them to know how best to keep themselves and their customers safe. If they mainly operate outdoors, let them decide if they still need facemasks. If they run a business that cannot avoid people being in close proximity to each other (like in public transport), let them decide if they can increase distances between passengers or if a highly effective air filtration or air exchange system is enough to ensure safety.
After two years, we should trust that people have had enough practice to know to keep a safe distance and cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze. Same with business establishments; the principles are the same, but they need to be applied in context. As one of our experts pointed out, one only needs to remember that two out of three elements must be present to keep safe from infection: masks, distance, and ventilation.
I think the private sector has proven that it has enough discipline to know that another surge will mean another lockdown. Last August 2021, we shut down voluntarily to avoid a surge. Small businesses felt the effects of the lockdowns most acutely, so I doubt that they would want cases to rise and lockdowns to happen again.
So what do we do as we wait for the next alert level to be announced? I suggest we use this time to strengthen our healthcare system. The unvaccinated remain at risk from severe disease, and there is still the possibility of new variants of SARS-CoV2. A strong healthcare system is crucial as we begin to welcome foreign tourists, some of whom might not be vaccinated and could threaten to fill our hospitals should they become ill while on vacation in the country.
From the looks of it, the responsibility of avoiding getting infected with COVID will eventually be shifted to the individual. It will be up to them to weigh the risks of engaging in social activities, of entering crowded or poorly ventilated places, or even to decide to wear facemasks. I believe there will be people who will continue to wear facemasks long after the threat has subsided. During the last two years, we have seen a drop in cases of respiratory diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia. Mobility restrictions aside, it stands to reason that teaching the public on the basics of hand and cough hygiene, and the wearing of facemasks had a lot to do with that. Which is why it might be good for the government to refresh and reinvigorate its campaign on health and safety protocols.
I understand the concern among medical doctors that things might be moving too fast. This was quite apparent when “Alert Level Zero” was first mentioned in the media. Businessmen, such as myself, are more open to risk-taking; that is what we do. We look at a situation, assess the risks, and see if it’s worth taking. The time might not have been right to shift down from Alert Level 1, but there will come a time when we should try and begin to go back to normal. The present situation cannot be permanent, and we must start planning for what will constitute an Alert Level Zero or whatever name it will be given as the new alert level status.
At some point—when our cases have settled to an acceptable level, there are enough vaccinated citizens, and our hospitals are out of risk— it will be declared that the state of public emergency is over and this will trigger the lifting of the alert level systems.
As I have proposed before, we could adopt the typhoon warning alert system, something all Filipinos are already familiar with. If there is no public health threat, no alert system is in place. But once a threat is detected, all the protocols and restrictions are put into place, and then removed once the threat has passed.
I think our country did well considering all the disadvantages it had back in 2020. We benefited from some luck as the vaccinations happened at the right time and it gave immunity to our population when cases around the world were surging.
We had enough infections going around to give a portion of the population acquired natural immunity. The arrival of the Omicron variant helped to push that immunity a bit further.
We are today in that place. We still have COVID in our midst, prices are rising, there’s threat of a protracted war, the danger of stagflation, the list goes on. The challenge of being in this place between places is that there is no playbook for it. Comparisons have been made to the period that spanned World War 1, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression and World War 2, but we didn’t have a highly globalized economy back then. Things weren’t as interconnected as they are now. It will be quite a challenge to see how we can ease the country back into normalcy. We do what we can to move forward, but we will have to move.