No room for complacency
More than three years after the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the world’s economies and health systems, the World Health Organization (WHO) finally declared the global public health emergency over.
WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cited the downward trend of infection for over a year, with widespread vaccination increasing immunity across countries. Meanwhile, infection rates, COVID-related deaths, and admissions in intensive care units have steadily decreased as well, easing the pressure on the public health sector that was pushed to breaking point in the early months of the unprecedented pandemic.
The hard-won improvements in the global COVID-19 situation have allowed most countries, including the Philippines, to return to a new normal, a huge relief from the fear generated by the declaration of the global emergency on Jan. 30, 2020.
But the WHO chief also gave a sobering warning: COVID-19 remains a global health threat. “The risk remains of new variants emerging that cause new surges in cases and deaths,” stressed Ghebreyesus. He added: “The worst thing any country could do now is to use this news as a reason to let down its guard, to dismantle the systems it has built, or to send the message to its people that COVID-19 is nothing to worry about.”
The warning could not be clearer, nor one that the Marcos administration can afford to ignore or downplay. Already, the Philippines is seeing a jump in COVID-19 cases, with the positivity rate in the National Capital Region, where the bulk of new cases were recorded, increasing to almost 23 percent on May 7, from 17.8 percent the week prior, well above the 5-percent level that the WHO defines as an indication that the infections are under control. Dr. Guido David of OCTA Research however noted a slowing down in the rate of week-on-week increase in cases, and now expects the rate to peak in the next week or so, with the positivity rate hopefully missing the 25-percent mark.
This, combined with the still low occupancy levels in hospitals, gives Filipinos some relief, but cautiously so. As the WHO has underscored, the virus continues to mutate and it is entirely possible that future strains would be stronger and once more overwhelm the health care system, especially since the immunity provided by previous vaccinations would have waned and lose their ability to ward off possibly more severe infections from new COVID-19 variants.
Adding to this worrying scenario is the Marcos administration’s failure to secure over one million doses of the new bivalent COVID-19 vaccines that were supposed to be donated to the Philippines, all because of legal roadblocks that the different branches of government could have quickly resolved with enough foresight, commitment, and political will. Indeed, the current dispensation should closely review the glaring shortcomings of the Duterte administration’s COVID-19 response—from the delayed procurement of life-saving vaccines, to the chaotic distribution of ayuda, and corruption issues surrounding government procurement of personal protective equipment and other supplies. The government must ensure that these egregious mistakes are not repeated, considering the great cost to human lives, the economy, and the public education system that suffered huge setbacks with the Philippines being among the last countries to return to face-to-face classes.
The Department of Health (DOH), fortunately, seems to be heading in the right direction when it echoed the WHO’s cautious message about the pandemic. “We want to remind everyone that even though the PHEIC (public health emergency of international concern, the WHO’s highest alert level) has been lifted, we cannot be complacent at this point. We still need to be vigilant,” said DOH officer in charge Maria Rosario Vergeire.
At the same time, President Marcos would be well advised to follow the recommendations laid out by the WHO in its 2023-2025 COVID-19 Strategic Preparedness Response Plan, on how governments can effectively transition to the long-term management of COVID-19. On top of building on the gains in the country’s capacity to handle the surge in COVID-19 cases, it must also prepare for future events “to avoid the occurrence of a cycle of panic and neglect,” the WHO advised. It added that governments can integrate COVID-19 vaccination into the life course vaccination program, which means increasing coverage and reaching out to those still hesitant to have themselves immunized with the COVID-19 vaccine.
The government must also fix the delayed benefits, low salaries, and low morale of health care workers to prevent their mass migration to other countries who offer better pay and treatment of nurses and other health professionals.
Hopefully, the President would be guided by the WHO’s firm recommendation for governments to “dedicate sustained attention and resources to preparedness and resilience for emerging threats.” As Ghebreyesus has emphasized: “This virus is here to stay. It is still killing, and it’s still changing.”
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