Waiting to ‘normalize’
The detection of new COVID-19 subvariants in the country last week indicates that the pandemic is far from over. Yet the government’s COVID-19 booster program lags behind, there’s an increase in measles cases, and there is a risk of more coronavirus infections with the opening of full face-to-face classes in public schools early next month. Despite these health-related emergencies, President Marcos Jr. said he would wait for the situation to “normalize” before appointing a health secretary. He reasoned out that the country needed to “get away from the emergency stance” of the Department of Health (DOH) to open up the economy and revive the tourism industry.
But the country cannot afford to wait for things to return to “normal” so Filipinos can finally deserve to have a health secretary. Data from the DOH as of Oct. 20 show that 61 of 81 XBB Omicron subvariant cases and 71 out of the 193 XBC Omicron subvariant infections were locally transmitted. The XBB subvariant, which has caused the recent surge of cases in Singapore, is believed to be highly immune-evasive, meaning those with antibodies against COVID-19 could still be infected. While the XBC subvariant is still under monitoring, and the XBB subvariant reportedly does not cause severe infection, there is no guarantee that our health system can handle another surge as effectively as other countries do.
It is ironic that the lead government agency in charge of managing the health crisis, and which can bolster public confidence in the new administration’s response to the pandemic, would be the last to get a full-fledged secretary.
DOH officer in charge Maria Rosario Vergeire and other health officials will have to hard carry the gargantuan tasks of deciding the strategies to address the various health issues afflicting the country, setting timelines for these goals, and delegating them to reliable experts to carry out until such time that a health secretary is appointed.
Just a few days ago, the World Health Organization reiterated that COVID-19 remains an international emergency despite gains that economies across the world have made, and that now is not the time to lift the declaration. Officials nevertheless have been aggressively pushing for a return to normalcy, telling the public that it must learn to live with COVID-19. That is all good only if tests, treatments, and vaccines are accessible and readily available.
The challenge, particularly in vaccine design as various health experts have pointed out, is to create a “pan-coronavirus vaccine” that can provide protection against future mutations because the virus mutates faster than laboratories create vaccines. But even if such a vaccine is already in circulation, access for poor countries like the Philippines can be a hurdle. Around this time, too, the government should be planning its procurement of bivalent vaccines in anticipation of the new subvariants. Vaccination remains the primary protection against the variants to avoid severe symptoms if infected. But the government must also address the low booster rate to avoid wastage; based on DOH data, only 20.4 million booster doses have been administered as of Oct. 19, or only 28 percent of 73.4 million complete doses previously administered.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the country has already seen low vaccine coverage, particularly for children, whether for COVID or other life-threatening diseases. This poses health risks for them and should be concerning, since public schools are soon to implement face-to-face classes by Nov. 2.
The Philippines for one has been notorious for not meeting the ideal target of 95 percent routine coverage rate for childhood vaccines since the 1990s. According to Unicef Philippines, one million Filipino children have not received a single dose of vaccine for life-threatening diseases among children such as polio, measles, and tuberculosis. Last year, the country was the top five contributor to the 18 million children with zero dose globally and the top seven contributor with the most children unprotected from measles.
Health authorities have already warned last year that a measles outbreak is likely to occur if the low vaccination is not addressed. Earlier this month, the DOH reported a 179-percent increase in measles cases to 413 in September from 148 for the same period last year. The DOH has requested funds to hire more vaccinators to prevent an outbreak.
Having a health secretary will certainly facilitate more efficient decision-making and faster coordination between the DOH and other pertinent agencies like the Department of Budget and Management on these urgent health matters. For now, Vergeire and her colleagues will just have to step up to the plate, as they have been doing since June, because the country cannot recklessly wait for the situation to normalize. Besides, there is no returning to normal—the pandemic has changed work operations and business models, and, moving forward, it should have also changed mindsets that a deadly virus will simply blow over.
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.