“We don’t have a concept of disease surveillance where communities are regularly tested, or in looking for the possible source of infection.”
By TRISTAN JAMES BIGLETE
MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration view the COVID-19 response as a “peace and order” issue instead of looking at the pandemic as a public health emergency.
This is how senatorial aspirant and human rights lawyer Neri Colmenares described the problem with the government’s policies on COVID-19 within the past two years.
“The problem with the government is that they always put the burden on the people and the business community… Lockdown is their main solution. For President Duterte, the solution to any problem is black and white. Just like the lockdown, if you follow, we are okay, but if you don’t then you have to be arrested,” Colmenares said in Filipino during a public briefing organized by CURE Covid, Jan. 7.
Colmenares noted how the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) recorded thousands of arrests related to supposed quarantine violations in the first year of the pandemic.
Recently, Duterte threatened to crackdown on unvaccinated individuals by sending them to jail. A resolution by the Metro Manila Council also restricts the movement of the capital’s unvaccinated population.
In a statement, the Concerned Doctors and Citizens of the Philippines (CDC Ph) said the resolution is unconstitutional and particularly oppressive to the most vulnerable sectors of Philippine society.
“This resolution flat out ignores the constitutionally-protected right of every Filipino to make independent, informed decisions that massively impacts their health and the well-being of their loved ones,” said Dr. Homer Lim, CDC Ph president.
Data show that the Philippines, despite having one of the largest COVID-19 infections in South East Asia, lags behind its neighbors with only 48 percent of the population being fully vaccinated. Government policymakers are hoping for 70 percent of the population to be inoculated before the general elections in May.
“Vaccine rollout is very slow, very low, and very inefficient,” Colmenares said.
While vaccination is seen as an important step in reducing the rate of infections, Colmenares reiterates that free mass testing is vital.
“That is based on science. Free mass testing. There are many countries with no restrictions, unlike us, but they are better off than us,” he said.
Support for mass testing poured in after the country experienced another surge of COVID-19 cases.
Community doctor Josh San Pedro of the Coalition for People’s Right to Health (CPRH) said that there is a low number of tests conducted to detect infections. The Department of Health (DOH) promised up to 100,000 tests a day but only 20,000 to 30,000 tests were carried out in December.
For San Pedro, the demand of the people to seek COVID-19 tests is based on their financial capability to go to laboratories. When the people have no money to go to testing centers, the number of tests can potentially decline.
The CPRH said tests should be free and accessible. While DOH issued a price cap for tests, (P2,800 for public hospitals and P3,360 for private facilities) the cost is still expensive for many Filipinos. PhilHealth also reduced its coverage for tests from P901 to P3,409 to P800 to P2,800 in response to the cap. With PhilHealth failing to ensure that tests are free, San Pedro said that individuals are still going to spend cash if they want to be tested for COVID-19.
“We don’t have a concept of disease surveillance where communities are regularly tested, or in looking for the possible source of infection,” San Pedro said.
According to San Pedro disease surveillance will increase the number of people tested and will serve as a guide to plot COVID-19 infection on the map.
As the Omicron variant enters the Philippines, calls for mass testing will remain. Roland Angeles, a graduate of the UP Philippine General Hospital Pulmonary Fellowship, said that the Omicron variant contributed to the rise of COVID-19 cases in the country.
Angeles said that there is still no certainty that the new variant causes milder symptoms since the stage of infection is still early. If Omicron produces milder symptoms, however, Angeles said that it will be harder to catch.
“Unlike previous variants where fever is prominent, or the loss of taste and smell is prominent, now even those we believe to be regular cough or colds can already be COVID,” Angeles said.
Omicron also seems to spread faster than Delta, at least three times faster according to Angeles. “This is a new infection. We know little of it. That is why we can’t be certain if we should be worried or not with this new variant. Definitely we should not be putting our guards down,” he said.
With two years of COVID-19 and the discovery of Omicron, CURE Covid spokesperson Dr. Julie Caguiat added in the same forum that the government’s response is falling behind and at times “chaotic.”