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Rethinking Our COVID-19 Approach

It’s a grim number. There were 22,366  new COVID-19 infections last August 29, 2021. That’s a record-high number for the country. The rate of those people who received positive results from the more than 71,000 tests was 27.5 percent. And while it is important to note that more than 95 percent of cases have been classified as “mild,” ICU bed utilization rates in the country and NCR are at more than 70 percent according to the Department of Health (DOH).


We have been accustomed to waiting for, and reacting to, the case bulletin released by DOH at 4 p.m. every day. But I wonder if there is a new way of looking at the numbers. That same day as the record-breaking case bulletin came out, I read a New York Times article on the state of the pandemic in Britain entitled, “Britons, Unfazed by High COVID Rates, Weigh Their ‘Price of Freedom’.”

Essentially, the article reported a number of social activities have resumed in Britain — football matches attended by “nearly 60,000” fans, a new West End musical made its debut, and, people going back to restaurants and pubs. This despite the fact that the country is reporting more than 30,000 new coronavirus cases a day. The article went on to discuss the emerging attitude of the British public towards COVID-19: “The public has moved on, even if the virus has not.” Some experts were quoted as saying that this could be a glimpse into the future for other countries.


What struck me was this quote from a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, Tim Spector: “We don’t seem to care that we have these really high infection rates. It looks like we’re just accepting it now — that this is the price of freedom.” To be clear, I do not believe that we should stop caring about the infection rates and that we should just “move on” and ignore the virus.


But I wonder if this is how, in the future, we can “live with the virus.” Given the slow rate of vaccination, the fact that studies suggest that the efficacy of the current batch of vaccines wanes months after the second injection, and the periodic surges all countries of the world seem to experience, we might need to start preparing for a life, a new normal with the coronavirus. I think it is time for us to begin painting a picture of the new normal.


Our policymakers should start rethinking their approach to this pandemic. As I have stated in my previous columns, and as suggested by some experts, we cannot always resort to hard lockdowns every time a surge happens. Can the government COVID-19 task force imagine a scenario where most of our social and economic activities are reopened and we put in place measures to “manage” the coronavirus in a “sustainable way”?


This means allowing restaurants, personal care services and others to re-open and easing up on the stay-at-home restrictions. But this also means re-allocating government’s resources and efforts from giving “ayudas” and enforcing region-wide lockdowns to enforcing health protocols in areas where social distancing guidelines need enforcement: public transportations, malls, restaurants, markets, groceries, and the like.


Law enforcement personnel need to be re-tooled so they can implement “granular lockdowns” imposed by local officials. This entails locking down a street or a block and providing assistance to those affected. Instead of setting up checkpoints that creates traffic, is it possible strategically place law enforcements personnel so they can ensure that people who go out are wearing masks properly and observing social distancing guidelines?


And while we are recalibrating our efforts, maybe we can pour some resources towards increasing COVID-19 and ICU beds in our hospitals. We cannot allow our people to die of COVID-19 while waiting to be admitted outside hospitals. The NY Times article noted: “New cases, in any event, are a less all-important metric than they once were, given that a much smaller percentage of those infected end up in the hospital.” This is why we need to ramp up our vaccination program in order to protect our population from severe illness, death, and hospitalization.


The fact of the matter is that the record-high infection rates occurred while we are on hard lockdown. It does not work. We need to find that balance where we can reopen our economy and resume social activities but at the same time being smart with our resources and strengthening implementation of health protocols. We do not know how “living with the virus” will work. This is all new to all of us. But experience tells us that lockdowns do not work. So why do we keep doing it?



Manila Bulletin/Views/MannyVillar