‘Tokhang’ tack for COVID-19
Thailand—The first country outside China to record a COVID-19 case back in January—has reported not a single case of local transmission of COVID-19 for over 50 consecutive days, thus the recent announcement that the first wave of the outbreak has ended in the country.
The Philippines, on the other hand, presents a depressingly different picture; we’re nowhere close to overcoming the health crisis that has plunged the country into a crushing recession. In fact, after 120 days under a suffocating lockdown—the longest in the world—the Philippines seems right back where it started in March, with major private and public hospitals in the National Capital Region again either nearing or already at full capacity due to the spike in COVID-19 cases. The country’s total cases as of July 16 (61,266 with 21,440 recoveries and 1,643 deaths) is the second highest in Southeast Asia, next to Indonesia.
The unabated increase in local COVID-19 cases is “worrying,” said Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, the Philippine representative of the World Health Organization. The increase in the positivity rate of COVID-19 cases—the percentage of those who tested positive for COVID-19 against total individuals tested—to 7.8 percent last Monday, from 6.5 percent two weeks ago, suggested that “there is continuing transmission.”
Despite these grim statistics, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III declared on Wednesday that the Philippines had “flattened” the pandemic curve as early as April. The universal uproar following this preposterous claim forced Duque to walk back his claim later in the day, but only to make the head-scratching comment that the curve was not “flattened,” just “bent.” “Lumiko, hindi po flatten,” he said—a remark that again left Filipinos throwing up their arms in disgust at the official ineptness on display.
To prevent the country from reversing the little that was gained during the four months in lockdown, the WHO again urged the government to further expand its testing capacity and urgently ramp up contact tracing efforts. “It’s still imperative that we use the increased testing capacity, to use that information not only to identify patients but also to identify who has been exposed to it, who else is potentially infected. Then quarantine and isolate those people so that we can arrest for the spread,” said Abeyasinghe.
These are the very same suggestions a plethora of health care experts, medical organizations, academic institutions, and business groups had urged the Duterte administration to undertake as early as March when the costly quarantine measures were imposed—and the very same strategies Thailand implemented to proven success.
In a commentary, Bangkok-based academic Walden Bello noted that it was Thailand’s public health system, with popular support from citizens, that made all the difference in its fight versus the pandemic—in particular the “critical role” played by village health volunteers at the community level as they “monitored people’s movement in and out of their villages, conducted home visits to check temperature, shared health information about COVID-19 and how to prevent it, recorded household health information, and reported their data to the provincial health office and then the central government.” This strategy worked because of the long history of cooperation and trust between public health authorities and civil society, which have together overcome public health crises such as the HIV-AIDS epidemic.
The Duterte administration, unfortunately, is seemingly bent on doing the opposite. Instead of putting health authorities front and center of the campaign against COVID-19, Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año jolted the nation with the announcement that local government units, together with the Philippine National Police, would go “house-to-house” to transfer mild and asymptomatic COVID-19 patients from their homes and into quarantine facilities under its “Oplan Kalinga” campaign. Widespread outrage later forced Año to clarify that local health workers will indeed lead “Oplan Kalinga”—but that reassurance was then undercut by even more unsettling words from PNP chief Archie Gamboa: The deployment of policemen is like “locating a criminal,” he said, and once you have located one, “you have to find his or her accomplices.”
By now, the public knows all too well what happens to ordinary citizens tagged by police as criminals, which makes Gamboa’s characterization of COVID-19 patients particularly sinister and reprehensible. Duque’s latest falsehood, Año’s careless announcement (also disowned by Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who said he wasn’t consulted on the planned “house-to-house” campaign), Gamboa’s “tokhang” mindset for an unprecedented public health crisis that has left Filipinos hungry, anxious, and exhausted—welcome to another day of the Duterte administration’s unrelentingly vexing, shambolic response to the pandemic.
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