It has been a long time since I have written about Covid-19 in this space. And for good reason. Since the Omicron-driven surge last January, the number of cases has been hovering in the low hundreds and severe cases and deaths have been very low. On top of these, hospital utilization has been very minimal. Is this the endemic phase of the coronavirus? Are we in the new normal where we all learn to live with the virus that has slowly morphed into becoming similar to the flu?
As I write this piece, the number of new cases has been on the rise but not at an alarming pace. According to OCTA Research, cases in the National Capital Region (NCR) have gone up by 71 percent but the numbers remain low. There were 585 new cases on June 18 with NCR leading the way with 266 cases. Despite the increase, hospital bed utilization is at 22 percent while ICU utilization is at 17 percent. OCTA calls this a “weak surge” that should not result in any change in the alert level.
Despite the “weak surge”, life has gotten back to “normal” for many Filipinos. People have been going out as evidenced by the return of “carmageddon” in the major streets of the capital. Malls and restaurants are bustling again. The airports have seen big crowds of travelers catching their flights to local and international destinations. I am glad that we have dropped the negative test requirement for inbound travelers who have completed their booster shots. This should encourage more tourism to return to the country.
We are slowly getting there. According to ForwardKeys, a global travel trend outfit, “flights are reaching about 43 percent of the pre-pandemic flight numbers” in Southeast Asia with the Philippines being the top destination ahead of Singapore and Thailand.
Pandemic managers of the Duterte administration did a good job balancing the health and the economic aspects of this global health crisis. There were some issues and problems during the first months of the pandemic which was understandable since this was all new to us then. But President Duterte’s handling of the pandemic in the past few months has helped the economy move towards recovery.
One of the key decisions was to cease releasing the number of daily cases on a daily basis. Waiting for the number of new infections every 4 p.m. had a bad psychological impact that led to poor policy decisions. Every time there is an uptick we send the public in a state of panic. Now, the health department just releases a weekly bulletin that focuses not just on new cases but more importantly the state of hospitalization capacity.
As I write this piece, President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. has not yet announced his pick for Secretary of Health and I think it will take some time before we find out the composition of his team or task force that will manage the pandemic. I believe that this is an important decision for the President-elect. He has already picked his economic team which was well-received by the business community both here and abroad.
He needs to choose a pandemic response team that will craft a strategy that balances the health and economic aspects of the pandemic. The Covid-19 crisis is not purely a health issue. This myopic view and the policies that will result from such a limited understanding of the pandemic will create more problems for us. The next administration must ensure that both public health and the economy will not be hurt by decisions based on fear and overreaction.
For example, when should we raise the Alert Level from 1 to 2? When cases reach 2,000? Or, when cases reach 5,000? Remember that escalating the alert level will have ripple effects on businesses, employment and the livelihood of people. Of course, we do not want Covid-19 to worsen but the government should have a calibrated approach to dealing with a pandemic that appears to have become endemic.
I hope that the next administration will adopt a sensible and holistic strategy towards pandemic management. A strategy that is based on science and the welfare of our country.