Pandemic’s end? | Inquirer Opinion
Second Opinion

Pandemic’s end?

It is therefore with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency,” World Health Organization (WHO) director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on May 5, to much media attention.

He stressed, however, that COVID-19 remains a threat: “It is still killing, and it’s still changing. The risk remains of new variants emerging that cause new surges in cases and deaths.”

Such ambiguity—declaring both an end and a continuation—mirrors the way COVID-19 is being treated in the Philippines today. The Department of Health welcomed the WHO announcement but at some point, there was some confusion over areas that were still under “alert level 2”; some local government units, in response to rising cases, have reinstated mask mandates; President Marcos himself floated the idea of requiring masks anew.

Now, there is no doubt that COVID-19 is still with us as a lingering infectious, contagious disease. Its persistence calls for sustained measures to make sure that it will not lead to further spread, that it will not cause significant morbidity and mortality.

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However, I do not think that returning to the old ways will work; they did not work before and there’s no reason why they will work now. Mask wearing has largely been performative, and its removal as a requirement last year did not increase the number of cases.

Suspending classes on the basis of an increase in cases is also an overreaction; the reopening of schools last year likewise did not lead to an increase of cases (in fact, the cases continued declining up until early this year). Considering that the educational lockdown has already led to incalculable damage to our children, this should not be entertained, barring exceptional circumstances.

Overall, the worst possible reaction to a present or future “surge” is to return to a “covidization” of health care; the single-mindedness to prevent COVID at the expense of various other public health concerns, from nutrition to mental health not to mention the wide range of other illnesses—from HIV and tuberculosis (TB) to noncommunicable diseases, that the focus on COVID has in fact compromised. (TB killed more people than COVID last year, but it continues to receive less public and political attention than it deserves.)

Instead, there are steps that have been universally proven—and adopted in various countries—that will work best as we continue to move past the pandemic while also acknowledging the continuation of COVID as a disease that’s here to stay.

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Ventilation—that is, clean air—has been increasingly recognized as an important paradigm; just last week, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its recommendations for “ventilation in buildings,” endorsing “five air changes per hour of clean air in occupied spaces” while also calling attention to the fact that outdoor spaces remain far safer. We need public, green spaces where people can avail of this safety, and the recent bout of intense heat should remind us that this initiative can be incorporated with other concerns.

The availability of testing remains vital. Some of my friends were easily able to detect their COVID. This should be normalized, and such self-testing kits should also be made available for other infectious diseases. Alongside self-testing, we should sustain and improve genomic surveillance not just to track new variants (they all seem getting weaker, as predicted by virologists) but also new viruses.

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Masking, too, should be normalized if one were sick or immunocompromised, something that the Japanese have practiced even before the pandemic. High quality N95 masks should be affordable and accessible to those who need or want them. Face shields, of course, should never be brought back again; we need not be reminded of the absurdities we had to live through in the name of COVID.

Perhaps most importantly, we need a health care system where people can feel confident that if they do get severe illness—whether from COVID or other conditions—they can have affordable and quality health care. Indeed, one of the reasons why people feared COVID—and still fear it—is not because of the disease itself, but because of their fears over what might happen, including the expense they might incur.

As for the pandemic itself, even when it is declared over, the labor of documenting our lived experiences and responses to it must continue. From abuses and absurdities to stories of success, our collective story of living through the pandemic needs to be told and retold. Moreover, the people involved in the obscene corruption that took place throughout this “state of calamity” have not been held accountable—and they never will be unless we keep remembering and insisting on justice.

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TAGS: column, COVID-19, pandemic

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