The Philippines marked one year of lockdown on Monday, March 15, recording nearly 5,000 daily new Covid-19 cases. In the country’s capital, stricter lockdowns were reimposed as infections were expected to spike following the detection of new Covid-19 variants and the poor implementation of health protocols.
The pandemic sank the country’s economy in 2020, with gross domestic product falling by 9.5% in 2020, the worst contraction since World War II.
The government’s punitive response to the pandemic has taken its toll on Filipinos. More than 100,000 lockdown arrests have been recorded as of September 2020. No newer data has been released since.
The pandemic also exacerbated challenges to the Department of Education’s K to 12 program. Financial woes had driven private school students to flock to public schools already struggling to implement the program.
What might the second year of pandemic be like in the Philippines? PCIJ Executive Director Carmela Fonbuena interviewed former Department of Health (DOH) secretary Manuel Dayrit via e-mail.
Dayrit was DOH chief during the SARS outbreak in 2003. He is a former dean at the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health, where he remains an adjunct professor.
“Much depends on how well the immunization program is implemented. If we immunize 70 million by the end of the year, we can more freely open up the economy,” he said.
But the country’s vaccine rollout, which began on March 1, has been slow so far. It remains limited to medical frontliners with only 1.1 million vaccine doses delivered so far.
Read the interview below.
1. We are marking one year since we went into lockdown. How do you feel about where we are as a country in terms of managing the pandemic?
Mixed feelings. I'm happy about the gains in the building of capacity with respect to testing, treatment of serious cases, and data management to produce dashboards to track reported cases. So much concerted effort to achieve these. But so much more needs to be done. For example, while we have secured a pipeline for the supply of vaccines for the rest of the year, I am not convinced that the capacity to vaccinate 70 million by year's end is there. We could end up with large numbers of vaccines sitting in warehouses. This phenomenon is familiar to us in the pre-Covid-19 era when vaccines and other supplies have been known to expire in storage.
2. Looking back at the early days or weeks since the country recorded the first cases of infections, what could have been done better?
To be fair, much of what I say here is said in hindsight.
1) Our response was delayed. If we were to learn from what Taiwan did for example, they sent a team to Wuhan in mid-January to validate what was going on and thus verified the existence of an epidemic. Taiwan had learned from the SARS experience when China did not report these cases so they checked early.
2) Taiwan then secured their masks and PPEs and began distributing them to the public through drugstores. If we had been able to procure and supply masks to our frontline health workers immediately, we would have been better prepared to prevent many infections and deaths among them.
3) Our laboratory capacity was very weak at the time with only RITM doing the tests. We could have begun ramping up one to two months earlier.
4) We should have moved quickly into "command and control mode" and better communicated to the LGUs nationwide. LGUs were left to their own devices not knowing what to do.
5) It really took three to four months (January to end March and into April) for government to get its act together with the creation of the National Task Force and the activation of the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases). In the face of Covid-19, those delays hampered efforts to control the spread of the virus. This is reflective of the level of our pandemic preparedness.
3. The first vaccine doses have finally arrived. How soon are we going to see the impact of the vaccines in terms of lowering the country's infection cases?
To vaccinate 70 million of our population by the end of the year, we have to vaccinate at the rate of 500,000 daily or 3.5 million per week. But as we can see from other countries (Israel, UK), decreases in serious disease could happen within several weeks of large numbers of people being vaccinated.
4. How will the pandemic be like in the Philippines one year after lockdown? What things should we expect to change, if any?
The pandemic will continue to propagate as the virus continues to infect susceptibles. Variants that are more transmissible may become predominant and increase transmission. Only an effective vaccination program will dampen the spread in consonance with continued compliance to minimum health standards.
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5. How much longer do you think we need to stay in lockdown, practice social distancing, and wear masks and face shields?
We will have Covid-19 foremost in our minds for the forseeable future. Much depends on how well the immunization program is implemented. If we immunize 70 million by the end of the year, we can more freely open up the economy.
6. Are workers going back to the offices and students to their classrooms soon?
Vaccinate them and their return to offices and classrooms will happen earlier than later.
7. What is the most important thing that Filipinos should keep in mind as we enter the second year of lockdown?
Do not underestimate the capacity of SARS-CoV-2 to create more trouble. Continue to be careful and don't take unnecessary risks. Practice the minimum health standards constantly.
8. When is it safe to go to the movies? How about dining out?
Safer to do these things once one is vaccinated.
9. What is the most important thing that the government should focus on as we enter the second year of lockdown?
Implement the vaccination program effectively and efficiently. Institute the policies to synergize with all sectors that can help with the immunization program. The old paradigm on relying solely on government systems and outlets to provide vaccination falls short of the challenge before us.
10. Are things ever going back to pre-pandemic normal?
I believe that the SARS-Cov-2 virus will be with us for a long time. Judging that it has already infected millions of people worldwide, it is unlikely that it will disappear like the SARS virus or the MERS virus. Vaccines, masks and other safeguards against viral spread and severe illness will continue to be needed going forward.
TOP PHOTO: Presidential Communications Operations Office
— PCIJ, March 2021