By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – While the Philippines continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, its neighboring countries Vietnam and South Korea have successfully controlled the spread of the dreaded virus. What they done are exactly the opposite of what the Philippine government has been doing so far.
Both Vietnam and South Korea have managed to keep the local transmission at a relatively minimum range. For the past week, Vietnam and South Korea only recorded 28 and 2,424 cases, respectively, way below the Philippines’ over 11,000 cases this past week, according to the John Hopkins University.
In a webinar organized by Solidarity of Health Advocates and Personnel for a Unified Plan to Defeat COVID-19 (SHAPE UP) last week, health advocates from the two countries shared that lessons from their experiences in handling infectious diseases were put to good use when COVID-19 was eventually declared a worldwide threat.
Thu Anh Nguyen, a doctor and country director of Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Vietnam, described their response as rapid, strong, and multi-sectoral.
As early as January 3, Vietnam has already tightened its border with China and put up 20 hospitals that would deal with the now known as COVID-19. Vietnam government conducted contact tracing and mandatory quarantine even before it detected its first positive case.
High-risk and vulnerable groups were tested in Vietnam, regardless of their symptoms. Testing capacity has also increased rapidly. In fact, Vietnam ranks for having the most number of tests per confirmed case at 792, compared to countries with bigger economy such as Russia, Germany, and the US, which are at 36, 15, and eight, respectively.
South Korea, too, drew lessons from their 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome experience.
At least 10 days before their first confirmed case was detected, South Korea’s special committee on infectious disease held a meeting to look into the COVID-19. Its government also supported local health groups that developed their own test kits, which they later used, said Jung-woo Kim, a researcher at the People’s Health Institute in South Korea.
Both Vietnam and South Korea also gained the trust of the public in their COVID-19 response through their transparent communication campaigns, where they explained the importance of social distancing, travel restrictions, among other health measures.
In the Philippines, however, the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine, which provided evidence-based clinical management to respond to 2003 SARS-COV and other diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and dengue fevers, did not receive sufficient public funding that could have prepared the country’s health system for COVID-19.
Under the Duterte administration, however, there has been a sharp decrease in the maintenance and operating expenses of the RITM.
Since day one, too, health advocates here have been pushing the government to conduct mass testing, contact tracing, and proper treatment but government officials were adamant at putting their fate and hope on a vaccine, which, at that time, was still being explored.
Even now that several multinational corporations are at the last stages of vaccine development, the Philippine government must still assess and plan ahead of what happens between now and about three to five years working period to vaccinate 60 to 70 million Filipinos.
South Korea’s Kim credits their very active civil society movement in the outcome of their response against the deadly virus. Civil society, he said, monitored and investigated the situation of disadvantaged workers, pushed the government to protect the vulnerable and respect their basic rights, found solidarity with international civil societies, to name a few.
In the early months of their fight against the virus, Kim said COVID-19-related deaths were documented in a mental health facility. Due to the strong demand from the ground, the South Korean government later established a blueprint on how to care for the disabled amid the pandemic.
It is important, Kim added, to “raise the voices of the people and make the government take accountability.” He also noted that the government – at various levels – should continuously be engaged so that “responses are quicker.”
Both health advocates from Vietnam and South Korea recognized the importance of solidarity, and social support for the vulnerable.
Banking on vaccines
Meanwhile in the Philippines, President Duterte has been vocal of his supposed arrangements with countries who are developing vaccines against the dreaded virus early into the fight against COVID-19.
As it stands, the Philippine government plans distribute vaccines to hotspot areas such as Metro Manila, Bacolod City, and Davao among sectors such as state forces, health workers, and poor Filipinos who are part of the government conditional cash transfer program. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III said this will need at least $1.5 billion, which he intends to source from various loans and grants from the Asian Development Bank, domestic banks and corporations, and bilateral ties with countries developing the vaccines.
The health department said government plans to vaccinate at least 20 percent of the population for free.
Apart from the Philippines, other countries such as the United States, where cases continue to rise, are also looking forward to getting their hands on the vaccines though experts have warned that it is “not going to be a walk in the park.”
Ethical questions have also been raised over the access to these vaccines. The World Health Organization, which noted that “the urgency with which vaccines have been developed must be matched by the same urgency to distribute them fairly.”
Fran Baum, co-chair of the Global People’s Health Movement, cited news reports where more than half of the world’s COVID-19 vaccines are projected to be cornered by the richest countries. Meanwhile, humanitarian agency Oxfam International estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population will not have access to vaccine until at least 2022.
Apart from access and distribution, other logistical nightmares also await. Even countries such as the US, whose health services have clearly been overwhelmed after months of COVID-19 response, may have problems distributing the vaccines. A US doctor said in a news report that there is “huge logistics barrier to overcome.”
Community doctor Joshua San Pedro said that despite the pandemic, health workers will continue to call out the government for its ineffective response and demand for the upholding of the people’s right to health.