Foot-dragging on China, again
What is preventing the government from requiring a COVID-19 test among incoming travelers from China, as other countries have already done?
On Thursday, as infections and deaths swept across China and triggered global alarm, the Department of Health (DOH) said it was “not yet time” to impose a travel ban on Chinese arrivals or tighten border controls on possibly infected individuals.
“The DOH doesn’t think it is [already] required or needed that we close our borders or have this regulation or restriction specifically to China only because of what is happening in their country,” said DOH officer in charge Maria Rosario Vergeire. She said the Philippines was “in a much better position than [it was] one or two years ago,” given its “high immunization rate” and observance of health protocols.
The following day, the DOH issued an “extremely urgent” memorandum to the Centers for Health Development. “Following the recent increase in COVID-19 cases in China, there is a need for the country to intensify the monitoring and implementation of border control protocols for incoming individuals, especially from China, at all ports of entry,’’ said the Dec. 31 memo.
The DOH directed the Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) to “intensify quarantine protocols such as heightened surveillance on all respiratory symptoms in all travelers and conveyances coming from China.”
Government agencies and local government units were also required to report symptomatic passengers and increase information dissemination about COVID-19 prevention and control.
The DOH said the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) would meet to review the standards for border control for Chinese arrivals and make recommendations to the President.
A day before the DOH memo, the BOQ instructed its quarantine stations to “continuously intensify” quarantine protocols, including “heightened surveillance” on travelers with respiratory symptoms, and to report symptomatic passengers.
Is the DOH and the BOQ throwing around technical terms—“heightened surveillance,” “intensify quarantine protocols”—to show that they are doing their jobs? Sadly, these actions fall short of the urgent decision needed to meet the very real threat of a new COVID-19 variant coming into the country and again wreaking havoc on our fragile health system.
South Korea, Spain, India, Japan, Italy, Malaysia, the US, and Canada have required COVID tests for travelers from China as infections there surged, following Beijing’s lifting of its zero-COVID policy and mandatory quarantine for foreign arrivals.
Airfinity, a UK-based health data company, has estimated that around 9,000 people in China are dying from COVID every day, with some 100,000 deaths and 18.6 million infections since Dec. 1. The firm said infections might peak on Jan. 13 with 3.7 million cases a day.
What has added to the alarm in most countries is the lack of information from the Chinese government on the true extent of its pandemic situation, with World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appealing to China to be more forthcoming. “In order to make a comprehensive risk assessment of the COVID-19 situation on the ground in China, WHO needs more detailed information,” Tedros said in a tweet.
He added: “In the absence of comprehensive information from China, it is understandable that countries around the world are acting in ways that they believe may protect their populations.”
Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista similarly said the country should be “very cautious” about the COVID situation in China, and require COVID tests for incoming Chinese travelers. Already, the Omicron subvariant BF.7 that caused the surge of cases in China had been detected in the country.
So why is the DOH again foot-dragging on China instead of recommending a COVID test for Chinese arrivals, which is the minimum the situation calls for? It has also passed the buck to the IATF (yes, that IATF) to decide whether or not to impose a travel ban. No date has been set for an IATF meeting so far, showing once again the lack of a sense of urgency in responding to the pandemic.
It is truly disappointing that Vergeire has continued the deadly and costly indecisiveness of her former boss, Francisco Duque III, who prioritized the feelings of the Chinese government over the health of Filipinos.
Is the DOH withholding its decision because of President Marcos Jr.’s ill-timed state visit to Beijing starting today? Since there was no stopping that visit despite the wave of infections there, the least that the President’s delegation can do is to set an example by quarantining when they come back.
In the meantime, shouldn’t the IATF wake up and take the urgent measures necessary to prevent a repeat of the DOH mistake in 2020, which led to a surge in COVID cases and thousands of deaths in the country? Hopefully, after seeing the situation in China, the President would finally appoint a decisive health secretary.