Never have Filipinos been thrust deeply into the world of science at any other time than this era of COVID-19. Suddenly, biology, chemistry, physics, medicine, mathematics, technology, and engineering have become such critical foundations for understanding how one might live — or die. People suddenly want to understand basic concepts as, what is a virus? How is it different from bacteria? The answer to the questions lead to more questions, and the science lessons branch, multiply, and continue in various directions. The lessons are not only learned in schools, in traditional and social media, but even in daily conversations among senior citizens and housewives in physical-distanced encounters in front yards and along the streets. Now, people basically understand how the virus, typically pictured with its colorful spikes, attaches to cell receptors of humans as if they were a key unlocking a hitherto impregnable lock preventing interspecies transmission. People now understand how eventually, in severe cases, phlegm fills the lungs, literally drowning the victim to death. There is also an understanding of the role of remedies like intubation and ventilators that assist the lungs to breathe.
The daily tally of infected persons, deaths, and recoveries announced daily by the Department of Health keeps this citizen interest constant, alongside the practical problems of daily life that need to be addressed, like how to earn a living and move about through checkpoints. Every day adds a layer of knowledge as new issues, anomalies, and discoveries crop up.
The answers are not straightforward. The results from different studies and advice from different authorities are often inconsistent, reflecting the dearth of knowledge about this coronavirus and its effects on humans. Take the proposition, taken as sound advice until recently, that persons who are healthy do not need to wear face masks, is now so universally discredited.
But susceptibility to folk remedies and instant cures proffered on social media remains among a large segment of Filipinos, indicated by social media buzz around Filipino-invented antiviral medicine, with no definitive and authoritative claim to validity. With time and the empirical results, however, sound science should triumph over pseudoscience.
Of interest are propositions that seem to indicate magical advantages to nationalities and population segments. For instance, are countries with warm weather less vulnerable? Are countries that routinely vaccinate against tuberculosis less vulnerable? Others seem outlandish, but may prove otherwise. One recent study that caught my eye is by a team from the Pitié-Salpêtrière University Hospital in Paris which has just been published by the French Academy of Sciences. The study said that of 480 COVID-19 patients with severe infections, only 5 percent were smokers, whereas in the general population more than 25 percent were daily smokers. Apparently, nicotine interferes with the attachment of the coronavirus to certain receptors in the body and, therefore, slows the spread of the virus. A clinical study is poised to resolve this mystery.
There will be more COVID-19 issues to talk about, as there is much time to discuss them. I would think Filipinos are fine, practicing citizen science, learning the science of COVID-19, and appreciating science in general. We can do better. Hopefully a strategy for enhanced learning under community quarantine conditions can be developed and mainstreamed by the DepEd, CHEd, Tesda, and universities and colleges. We worry about our seniors, but we should not neglect the education of our youth.
The science that is lagging in the Philippines is policy science — how the policy decision-makers in the government are formulating alternatives, evaluating them, and making policy decisions. The main constraint to freeing the vast human and material resources of our various policy institutions is the imagined limits of presidential preferences that has translated into a general reluctance to take proactive policy studies and initiatives. There is still no definitive and authoritative set of data on the extent, trends, and patterns in COVID-19 infection in the country, due to the late start of mass testing. The systematic integration of various government and nongovernmental statistics and projections from disparate sources in the field should be better achieved. The assessment and projection of the surge capacity of the health system to deal with COVID-19 need to be completed. Policy recommendations need to be formulated from these data. A ray of optimism is the way academic institutions, public and private, like the University of the Philippines COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team, have stepped up to conduct their own policy studies, which we now observe to have enriched the policy decisions of the Duterte administration to extend ECQ and GCQ as appropriate in various parts of the country.
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