I have seen my family twice, and only briefly, since the pandemic began, for fairly essential reasons. I continued to wear a mask in both instances, fearing for the safety of the elderly in the home. Most of the health care workers I know are the same: If they have the option to isolate from their families, they do so. Some hospitals have thankfully stepped up to provide dormitories for such workers. For those who cannot live away from their families, they continue to exercise care in the hospital and outside of it, and many avoid spending time in communal areas even within their home. This level of caution isn’t confined to health workers, and continues to be the burden of all those needing to go out for work, particularly in other service industries.
This social and physical isolation undoubtedly takes a toll, especially since there’s no end in sight: Many experts on the COVID-19 response believe that the novel coronavirus will continue to disrupt our lives until the end of 2021, but even that estimate is uncertain. Still, the thought of infecting our families is deterrent enough and keeps us on track, especially as we continue to see the virus take, and take, and take.
Last Saturday, the Department of Health reported its highest number of deaths from COVID-19 in one day. This data might not be absolutely reliable, and the department itself admits that some of these fatalities happened earlier and were reported later, but it’s clear that the virus isn’t letting up. As of this writing, we have more than 60,000 active cases. It’s enough to scare many of us who are working outside the home into staying isolated, keeping contact with our families through Zoom calls, and ordering food in.
This is why it can be disheartening to scroll through social media and see how many people do not find themselves burdened with similar thoughts. My colleagues and I try our best to minimize eating and drinking with others inside the hospital, and if we do so we do this while facing the wall or sitting far away, knowing that removing our masks and face shields even for a short communal meal puts us and loved ones in danger. In contrast, I see friends — even health professionals! — eating samgyupsal in enclosed restaurants. People are visiting the homes of relatives and friends to celebrate birthdays and baby showers. People meet up to chat and smoke and take photos together, removing their masks in the process.
It is difficult to begrudge our friends their happiness, particularly when we have all been chafing under quarantine, but this laxness is disappointing. This is in light of a recent study from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found that participants who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have dined in a restaurant in the two weeks prior to their diagnosis, versus those who tested negative.
It isn’t something we see just on our social media feeds. Standards are being relaxed elsewhere. To accommodate more riders, physical distancing in public transport will be eased over the next month, thanks to approval of a Department of Transportation proposal by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases and the National Task Force Against COVID-19. The prescribed 1 meter or more distancing — which health experts have already emphasized is a minimum and not a guarantee against contagion — will be reduced to 0.75 m, then 0.5 m, then 0.3 m. It’s a proposal that has already been called problematic by infectious disease experts.
The relaxing of restrictions parallels the way we have relaxed our standards of behavior in mitigating COVID-19 spread. Where we once worried about sanitizing delivered goods, now we have started to see dining in restaurants as “normal” again, even under circumstances that leave us vulnerable to infection. Couple this with imperfect mask-wearing behaviors, and we can already see the potential for spread.
We must not buy into the “pasaway” narrative and allow government to gaslight us into thinking that the current catastrophic status of COVID-19 in the Philippines is a fault of the citizenry, rather than wishy-washy, too-little-too-late travel policies; selectively applied COVID-19 rules; misuse of resources; and a steady refusal to put evidence-based, scientific recommendations at the forefront of prevention. But we must also admit that, from this point on, success is impossible unless caution is exercised by all. Let’s not be complacent, and let’s continue to find safer alternatives to nonessential gatherings.
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