Heart, mind, COVID-19
Someday, historians will be able to unearth the many behind-the-scenes negotiations that went into the first declaration of quarantine in March, and the subsequent modifications including the ones that will be coming up on June 1.
Despite the many problems we had implementing the quarantine and the lockdown, I can say that there was science behind many of the policies. The problems that did crop up were often more because of bureaucracies and political interference.
Now, as we loosen up on quarantine, it will become even more important to have scientists take the lead. The number of new cases each day is still high, and could spike even more if we let our guard down.
I’m hoping that scientists will become more vocal with sound advice for the future, particularly around the package with the fancy name “Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions” or NPIs, which refers to the use of masks and other facial coverings, hand-washing and sanitizers, cough etiquette, physical distancing and, at the heart of quarantine, staying home whenever possible.
The Social Weather Stations has released results of a COVID-19-related survey done early in May, showing high compliance in terms of masks, hand-washing and physical distancing. But scientists will still need to come in to help with the more nuanced aspects of the NPI. We still need to do more to explain the proper use of masks, for example.
The matter of cough etiquette—even the term etiquette—needs to be better explained, especially the point that it is not just coughing but also sneezing and spitting. The advice to cough or to sneeze into the elbow is also not clear, and is hard to translate into Filipino.
In all the NPIs, we need to keep explaining the rationale behind each intervention. Why cough or sneeze (but not spit!) into the elbow, for example? That’s because if you are infected and cough or sneeze into your hands, you just might infect others when you touch another person with the contaminated hands.
Scientists need to work with communications experts (who I consider social scientists) to advise our politicians and policymakers. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is not very good with public relations, was advised to give a very simple yet useful 3Cs preventive advice for the public: avoiding confined spaces, crowded places, and close contact.
That’s going to be very important advice for the Philippines as well as malls reopen… and, to revisit the ridiculous policy of locking in people in their homes, which are superconfined spaces, and not even allowing them to sit in front of the house.
Testing has become a point of contention, and it is good the medical associations have spoken out against an almost arbitrary use now of tests. Sadly, policymakers do not seem to be listening, with OFWs and employees affected because of an imposition of mandatory testing.
Scientists, I have to say, need to lead policy-making with both mind and heart—utak at puso, to use a UP slogan.
Let me shift to “we” now, speaking as a scientist. We need to speak out, too, when policies use narrow interpretations of science to justify oppressive policies, such as those we see in urban poor communities, from arrests for leaving the house, to the confiscation of tricycles and vegetable carts that were banned with the quarantine.
We need to talk, too, about scientific governance and management. Last month, there was an article in the business magazine Forbes by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox noting that some of the most successful responses to COVID-19 are countries headed by women: Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Denmark.
Wittenberg-Cox identifies commonalities among the women leaders: speaking the truth, decisiveness, smart use of technology (whether tests or social media), and, you guessed it, love, empathy, and care.
Wittenberg-Cox contrasts the women with “strongmen,” describing their tactics including “blame-others, capture-the-judiciary, demonize-the-journalists, and blanket their country in I-will-never-retire darkness.” She named eight of these strongmen and, yes, the United States and the Philippines made it into this dubious honor roll.
An out-of-the-ordinary request: Please email me if you know where in Metro Manila to buy betel nut (nganga) as well as the lime and ikmo leaves that go with it. Bai Bibyaon, a feisty Manobo leader who has been stranded in Manila and who is at least 90 years old, has run out. Thanks!
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