Privileged testing

/ 04:07 AM March 24, 2020

The death of a respected academic from severe pneumonia caused by COVID-19 strongly drove home the message that no one is safe from the COVID-19 outbreak that has brought the world to a halt.

Dr. Aileen Baviera, a University of the Philippines professor and the country’s foremost Sinologist or expert on China, went straight from the airport to San Lazaro Hospital on March 12 upon arriving from Paris. She died last Saturday before the result of her COVID-19 test came out.


Elsewhere, reports circulated of three doctors who had died after being exposed to patients who turned out positive for COVID-19. As the cases are shrouded in secrecy, with the victims reduced to being patient numbers and statistics, their grieving families have occasionally posted about the double tragedy: their sick relatives dying alone and being cremated alone, and loved ones not being able to grieve together as Luzon is on lockdown and people are strictly ordered to stay at home to stop the spread of the virus.

A 64-year-old PUM (person under monitoring) in Virac, Catanduanes, and an 84-year-old PUI (person under investigation) in Calapan City, Oriental Mindoro, were reported to have died last week without being tested because of the lack of test kits in their hospitals.


As the number of positive cases in the country surged past 400, with the highest single-day increase of 82 cases yesterday and with deaths rising faster than recoveries, the magnitude of the country’s lack of preparedness in dealing with the pandemic has become clearer and more disturbing each day.

The medical situation alone is severe: an abject lack of testing kits and PPEs (personal protective equipment) for frontline health workers, as well as hospitals running out of beds for PUIs, and the general public constrained to homes but are otherwise practically sitting ducks without massive testing in their communities.

Nowhere is the country’s response more lacking than in the scarcity of test kits that would have enabled the authorities to effectively contain the virus by identifying and isolating those who are infected. For months since the first COVID-19 case in the country was confirmed on Jan. 30, the Department of Health (DOH) only had 2,000 test kits.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, touting the Philippines then as a “model country’’ for containing the virus, failed to ramp up procurement of the vital test kits. To date, only 1,622 individuals have been tested, but at least 6,321 PUMs (those who are on monitored self-quarantine) are still awaiting the procedure.

And yet, amid the stark shortage of test kits, politicians have still managed to game the system by skipping the queue and getting themselves tested despite being asymptomatic, which, per DOH guidelines, disqualifies one from immediate testing. These government officials include members of the Senate, one of whom is Sen. Francis Tolentino who has apologized for jumping the queue on coronavirus testing, and some members of the Cabinet, including former envoy to China Ramon Tulfo.

Health frontliners have bravely blown the whistle not only on this deplorable preferential practice that crowds out and deprives sick patients of test kits, but also on even more galling behavior by some politicians — namely, allegedly demanding that the DOH surveillance team conduct personalized testing in the officials’ homes.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, otherwise a reassuring voice in this crisis, offered the risible excuse that the politicians were tested before the DOH had revised its protocol, which now limits the procedure to those with severe symptoms and underlying health conditions. To the public revolted by such shamelessly privileged testing, Duque had this to say: “Have a little more patience.’’


According to World Health Organization chief Tedros Ghebreyesus, the best way to contain the spread of the virus is to “Test, test, test,’’ because countries cannot fight the disease blindfolded. South Korea is a model for this strategy; it conducted massive testing, even offering drive-through and phone booth testing, and today has seen a significant reduction in cases.

Vergeire, however, is not buying the WHO’s advice or South Korea’s example. In the face of the outcry for mass testing (“#MassTestingNgayonNa” has been trending on Twitter), the health official said it “has yet to show proven effectiveness in addressing the pandemic.’’

Why, then, are officials of this country falling all over themselves to be first in line?

For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
What you need to know about Coronavirus.
For more information on COVID-19, call the DOH Hotline: (02) 86517800 local 1149/1150.

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