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Blow upon blow

/ 04:03 AM June 29, 2020

“Wala kasing kita kaya sabi ‘di nakaka galing.” “Dami talaga pakialamero, akala nila alam na nila lahat.”

These comments have been directed at doctors trying to explain that steam inhalation, or “tuob,” is not a cure against COVID-19. This is in light of Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia’s endorsement of the practice. Since then, medical organizations have clarified that while beneficial for some respiratory complaints, tuob is not a cure for the coronavirus, and might be dangerous if performed in communal areas by those already infected with COVID-19. Many lay people continue to accept the governor’s endorsement as sound practice despite scientific statements to the contrary. “Maraming doktor ang naniniwala sa tuob, pati si Cebu Governor. DOH na lang ang hindi,” said one more comment on a tuob-related infographic.

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“Based on what I know, you are a doctor. And so why are you meddling with the administration here?” the governor berated one of the doctors who criticized the memo, calling her “just” a general practitioner. When national health is on the line, why are such leaders quick to dismiss professionals volunteering free, correct information? Why are we dismissing the role of the medical community in countering such policies when we are in a pandemic? Is it wrong to make the evidence-based, cautious practice of medicine the basis for countering contagion?

Those who disagreed are accused of arrogance and of being in cahoots with “big pharma” to make money, and thus discouraging inexpensive traditional treatments such as tuob. In reality, many doctor advocates are trainees, who make little money, or salaried physicians who do not stand to make profit from pharmaceuticals. In reality, it is not doctors who profit from the coronavirus.

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This skepticism of medical practice is a predictable change from the teary-eyed gratitude frontliners faced early in the pandemic, and only goes to show how much of that gratitude was shallow and merely performative; after all, the profession continues to be disrespected by a government which once called it “essential.” Calls by health professionals for strategic contact tracing, isolation, and expanded testing have yielded disappointing results. Criticism of ineffectual government strategies is silenced by threat of arrest for social media dissenters. Many health workers struggle with no or inadequate hazard pay and protective equipment. Violations of physical distancing by prominent government officials remain unpunished, while protesters criticizing government response to the pandemic have been arrested. Over the weekend, a Department of Health memo circulated that arranged for Doctors to the Barrios in Western Visayas to be deployed to hospitals in Cebu, instead of continuing to serve in primary care in their communities. It’s blow upon blow upon blow, and it’s no wonder that health care workers are exhausted by more than just COVID-19.

What we need are not TikTok dances for frontliners, not companies exercising performative gratitude by creating ads about the frontliner experience. We need support from government on all levels to operate on sound science and the best available evidence. We need tools to be able to battle the epidemic, which is to say adequate transport options and just compensation. We need government leaders who recognize that the pandemic is a war to be fought with science, and who will actually listen to the scientific community rather than treat it with disdain. We need for those in public hospitals and in government health programs, like the Doctors to the Barrios, to feel supported by their institutions, and to continue to be allowed to serve their underserved communities. We need public leaders to be active in combating fake news and to recognize the harm it poses to public safety.

Finally, we need the general population to stay home when they can and wear masks outside, and to pay attention when they see professionals at pains in combating fake news. Fighting the infodemic and the willful ignorance of our leaders is just as exhausting as fighting the virus itself.

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