Take it slow
It took only one person to shatter South Korea’s early success in combating the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korea’s strategy has been held as a global model on how to beat the coronavirus, with an aggressive program for early detection and massive testing that enabled the country to keep its numbers low — just 256 deaths and around 10,900 cases last week since its first case in January.
The country relaxed stringent distancing measures on May 6, and public spaces and establishments that included bars and nightclubs opened. On the first weekend of the reopening, a 29-year-old man went on a pub crawl, visiting five clubs in the popular nightlife district of Itaewon. And just like that, he infected at least 17 people, according to reports, and sparked a new cluster of COVID-19 infections, prompting the government to close down again nightclubs, bars, and other venues. Authorities would later estimate that some 7,200 people who visited the five bars were at risk.
“Carelessness can lead to an explosion in infections,’’ Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said. South Korean President Moon Jae-in added his own warning: ‘’It’s not over until it’s over.’’
The case of South Korea, as well as China, Russia, Germany, and other countries that saw a spike in cases as soon as they relaxed restrictions, should provide pointed lessons to the Philippines, which has also eased severe lockdown measures beginning May 16.
After being cooped up in their homes for two months, many people were understandably itching to go out, as shown by the influx of cars and visitors that flocked to reopened malls across the metro last weekend. Lest ordinary citizens get the usual knee-jerk tongue-lashing that they were simply being reckless, it should be noted that even President Duterte succumbed to the need to venture out, flying to Davao City on Saturday despite the ban on air transport after having hunkered down in Malacañang since March.
Is it safe out there? Make no mistake: The coronavirus has not been vanquished, no one is safe from it yet — and, worryingly, the Philippines continues to see a significant number of cases every day. The country also has one of the lowest testing capacities at this point, having tested only over 180,000 individuals.
Relaxing the quarantine is a tricky balancing act. People need to earn to feed their families and the stalled economy has to be revived, but the reopening may also trigger a second wave of COVID-19 cases — even as the Philippines has yet to truly flatten the first one.
Where does the pathogen lurk? Dr. Erin Bromage, associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and an expert on immunology and infectious diseases, pointed out in his blog that the main sources of COVID-19 infection are the home, workplace, public transport, social gatherings, and restaurants; in the United States, these account for 90 percent of all transmission events. Super-spreading events can happen in meat processing and manufacturing plants, and during birthdays, weddings, funerals, and face-to-face business networking. Knowing the risks, Bromage emphasized, is crucial to keeping one’s self safe from the virus.
While more people are now allowed to go to work, and more industries, businesses, and establishments have been permitted to reopen, citizens need to pay attention to the health risks posed by greater mobility and interaction, and exercise all necessary steps to stay safe. Wearing masks, frequent disinfection and hand-washing (more than 10 times a day, say experts), and strict physical distancing are the minimum standards in our new way of life.
Another expert, Tulane University epidemiologist Susan Hassig, helpfully classified various everyday activities into three risk levels in a Business Insider article by Bryan Pietsch. High risk would include such activities as getting together with nonhousehold family or friends (“If you haven’t been living with them, then there’s a potential risk,” said Hassig), attending religious functions, and going to bars, movie theaters, and sporting events. Medium risk: Gyms, indoor restaurants, hair and nail salons (but “mask-wearing is critical”). Low risk: outdoor dining (“as long as tables are kept at least 6 feet apart”), outdoor activities (hiking or walking alone), retail shopping (“keep distance from others and wear a mask”), and touching mail or groceries.
These are just for starters. The country, like the rest of the world, would have to adapt quickly but reopen gingerly, carefully, if it is to survive not only the worst ravages of this pandemic, but also its disastrous economic whiplash. Outside of work and trips to procure food and necessities, the safest bet for now remains staying at home as much as we can, until definitive data are in that the danger has eased. Caution is the watchword: Take it slow.
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