A story of consequences
Last week I heard about the Poblacion-girl-skipping-quarantine news first on Twitter, where gossip always travels a little faster. Within a day social media was full of the expected outrage: a young woman returning from the United States had reportedly checked into the Berjaya Hotel for quarantine but was seen in at least one restaurant and one bar in the Poblacion district the day after her arrival, with social media posts corroborating the story. Said girl then later tested positive for COVID-19, amid rising fears of the Omicron variant causing a surge in the US, and some of those she came into contact with also tested positive. It doesn’t help that in the last week we saw a sudden increase in cases, with the Department of Health logging 2,961 new cases on Dec. 31 versus 288 on the 23rd. Then came the announcement that Metro Manila would be placed under alert level 3 this week.
I’ll leave it to epidemiologists and public health experts to parse the numbers and speculate on the extent of the quarantine breaker’s impact. Despite social media users being happy to put the entirety of the blame on her shoulders with edgy memes, it’s obvious that she can’t be blamed for all of the cases. But the impact is there.
As of this weekend, it was estimated that she may have infected around 15 persons — a not insignificant number. A restaurant she visited reported that their fully-vaccinated staff are now all COVID-19 negative. A popular bar she also visited, on the other hand, had patrons and staff who tested positive. She had supposedly filled up the mandatory health declaration form prior to entering. Operations in the bar have ceased temporarily, which must be a blow to management and to employees. A friend told me that concerned employees were nervously asking management if they were going to die, if they were going to be paid for time off work, if they could be assisted in testing family members they had unknowingly exposed, and if they could still have their job back after quarantine.
The hotel, which also initially covered for the girl, is also in hot water. The hotel has said that all employees involved in the breach would be dealt with, but social media users are calling for worse punishments. We can’t know the details of how the hotel is choosing to “deal with” their errant employees and how many of those sanctioned actually had the choice to prevent the quarantine breaker’s actions. If the hotel does have its accreditation revoked or is forced to suspend operations, doubtless it’s the employees who will be the first to feel it, too.
While a positive COVID-19 case has the capacity to be catastrophic in any setting, what I wish brazen quarantine breakers and reckless partygoers could consider first are those persons at risk, for whom one infection, or even one exposure, can be devastating for the entire family: service industry employees who are living paycheck to paycheck, and those on a no-work, no-pay basis. Employees who go home to their households and end up exposing others who are also working. Employees who can’t afford to have their households tested, or to bring for treatment those of their families who become symptomatic. Households with children who are unvaccinated, and who are increasingly vulnerable to serious infection. “Poblacion girl” may now face charges and may pay fines and/or serve prison time. The justice secretary has elsewhere explained that any affected private person may file a case against quarantine violators. But how capable are these small names and households of demanding compensation? And how many of them will suffer devastating consequences even before any investigation is finished?
Another painful reality: the case of “Poblacion girl” is not isolated. Even the tourism secretary recently told of several stories of similar violations, of travelers who cut quarantine and return to the facility only when they are due to be tested, able to pay for protocol breaches to be overlooked. It’s then an easy thing to visit establishments and lie on health declaration forms, which require visitors to declare a history of recent travel. Falsified forms can then make tracing to a deliberate quarantine-breaker source impossible. It’s frustrating, but many of these names remain under the radar.
Regarding such violations, PNP spokesperson Col. Roderick Alba assured the public this week that “no stones will be left unturned” in this investigation as, “of course, this concerns public health.” However, we’re all too aware of cases where such investigations led nowhere, with higher-profile individuals. I’m as frustrated and as hungry for justice when it comes to the “Poblacion girl” case as anyone else, but I wish the rigor applied to this case had been exercised for those other violators. The fact that we let some get away with such transgressions makes it easier for others to think that they can, too. And as this recent incident shows, it only takes one breach for devastating consequences to follow.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.