In response to calls from the private sector, the government has announced that they are now crafting a pandemic exit plan. Presidential adviser for COVID-19 response Vince Dizon has been quoted by the press as saying that the National Task Force Against COVID-19 is supportive of the recommendation to remove the alert level system as the vaccination rate continues to go up.
I fully support a plan that will detail strategies on how to transition from a state of perpetual lockdown to one where our society adapts to “living with COVID-19.” It should be a plan that focuses on two critical things — saving lives and saving livelihoods and the economy. And I hope that government agencies come up with a clear, detailed, and comprehensive plan so we can quickly begin the process of rebuilding our economy.
The first issue is timing. When do we begin the transition? Obviously, we cannot start while there is still a raging surge and while cases are still very high. Government officials estimate that by March or April at the latest the cases would have sufficiently decreased to trigger the start of the exit plan. As of last week, we have already seen a gradual reduction in the daily cases especially in the National Capital Region (NCR). Health experts expect this trend to continue such that by mid-February they estimate cases in the capital to slow to around 500 a day.
Aside from timing, a more robust program to vaccinate our entire population should be put in place. Living with COVID-19 means protecting ourselves from the virus. And vaccines are the most important weapons we have against the coronavirus. With vaccine hesitancy down and supply going up, this should not be a problem at all.
There are certain capabilities that we need to strengthen in order to seamlessly transition from a pandemic outlook to an endemic mindset. And I honestly believe that this should not be that difficult given the fact that we have our own experience and that of other countries to learn from. Since the beginning of this pandemic, I have been arguing that we need to study the successful models provided by other countries in terms of fighting the coronavirus. I know that different countries have different circumstances but understanding what they are doing right will allow us to reconfigure our own strategies.
We also need to have a sound COVID-19 testing strategy. If we cannot afford mass testing, which is the ideal, then we should put in place an efficient and accessible targeted testing program that focuses on healthcare workers, at-risk groups, and Filipinos who cannot afford the cost of testing. This is critical to the success of our exit strategy.
In an endemic setting, we need to strengthen our health system and protect our health workers. I have already discussed in the past the need to increase the capabilities of our hospitals but we also need to look at the value of online health services or telemedicine that will not only make consultations accessible to the population but also relieve our health care facilities during surges. We need to protect our health care workers just as much as we protect the health of our people.
More importantly, the government must have a sound communications strategy in rolling out the exit plan to the public. We need to learn from our mistakes in the past. We cannot give the impression that the exit plan means there is no more danger and everyone can do as they wish. I hope I will not see an official proclaiming victory or that the war is over. The virus is still with us. Some new mutations, in fact, have been reported already. We will follow minimum health protocol and act responsibly in public places. We will make sure that we, and our loved ones, are fully vaccinated and boosted. We are merely transitioning to a new mindset. Instead of trapping our people inside their homes and ruining the economy, we choose instead to fight the virus with our sense of purpose and responsibility.