The Pogo peril
Even as an emergency committee convened by the director-general of the World Health Organization meets today to determine if the new coronavirus (designated 2019-nCoV) constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, the public’s gone ahead and, not waiting for the Department of Health (DOH), begun to look askance at Chinese workers in Pogos (Philippine off-shore gaming operators) as potential vectors of this new disease.What we know is that 2019-nCoV emerged in Wuhan, China, and has infected 217 people since December, with three fatalities to date. It is a virus originating from animals and which has mutated to infect humans, causing flu-like symptoms that can cause respiratory tract illnesses like pneumonia that resist antibiotic treatment. China’s health authorities have confirmed it can be transmitted from human to human (at least two cases). It’s been described as a “cousin of SARS” (which claimed 800 lives from 2002 to 2003). From Wuhan (198 cases, though the Imperial College’s MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis in London issued an estimate of 1,723 cases as of Jan. 12), cases have been reported in Beijing (at least five) and Shanghai (one so far), while South Korea last Monday confirmed its first case—a Chinese national traveling from Wuhan (a total of four cases outside China to date, including two in Thailand, one in Japan).Xi Jinping on state television stated that “People’s lives and health should be given top priority and the spread of the outbreak should be resolutely curbed.” For our part, the DOH clarified that a text message claiming a Chinese visitor with a case of SARS was identified in a health clinic was actually a hoax; it said there is no reason to panic. Back when SARS was in the news, 92 suspected SARS cases mostly turned out to be other infections or diseases, with 14 probable cases reported, two of which were confirmed and had died, with six others either relatives of the two fatalities, or health workers involved in their care; four others had come in from affected areas abroad.
While the DOH remains beleaguered because of diminished public confidence in public health and increased antiscientific ignorance among the public, the DOH at least has a template that the Bureau of Quarantine can roll out (Cebu has already made a point of stating that sensors to detect high temperatures in arriving passengers have been deployed in the airport).
In China, it’s the Lunar New Year massive internal migration that has people worried; what bothers me is how anyone Chinese will now become the scapegoat for ignorant profiling. To be sure, there is increasing Chinese tourism, but even the nature of this, as a Dumaguete politician told me four years ago, suggests limited exposure. When I asked about the impact of Chinese tourism, the politician mentioned that it puzzled them: They knew they were arriving in droves, but from the time they were fetched from the airport until they left, locals hardly saw these tourists. They seem to belong to package tours that restricted them to Chinese-only places. Even if this is the exception and not the rule, the majority of mainland Chinese actually here don’t seem to be the kind of workers who can jet off to China for the Lunar New Year. I’d suggest that what we are actually experiencing, precisely because so many are Pogo workers, is a new wave of Chinese migration.
Periodically, there are news reports with claims of Philippine passports, immigration permits and other documents being sold to these workers (or their bosses). But most striking to me is something anecdotal, though many seem to have their own version of such anecdotes: the presence of entire families, most strikingly, including mothers-in-law. This suggests people—families, including little babies—here to stay, which would make sense considering Pogos are on the hit list of Beijing, which has repeatedly expressed its displeasure over our government welcoming them. This means Pogo workers with their families are, in a sense, beyond the reach of the long arm of Beijing. So they are less agents of Chinese state infiltration (as is often bruited about) and actually economic refugees—in a sense, like Filipinos in other countries.
Which would make them not foreigners to react to with fear and loathing, but people like any other in the same boat as us: as vulnerable as anyone to 2019-nCoV. They are natural allies in taking precautions—whatever these might be, once DOH issues public advisories.
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