Christmas 2020 might not be gloomy after all. The latest Philippine data on COVID-19 suggest that the pandemic is easing.
COVID-19 cases continue to fall. From a peak of 126,878 cases in the second week of September 2021 (Sept. 9 to 15), the number has dropped to 6,723 cases for the week of Nov. 11 to 17.
Further, the weekly positivity rate (the number of individuals tested positive for COVID-19 as a percentage of the total number of persons tested) fell to 3.2% as of Nov. 13, from the high of 28%, recorded on Sept. 5.
As a consequence, bed occupancy is 24.9% of the total number of beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients, as of Nov. 19. This means that the situation of health facilities is no longer critical and is described as safe. Government accordingly has eased mobility restrictions.
But this does not mean that we can declare victory over COVID-19. The declaration of Secretary Carlito Galvez that we have defeated the Delta variant of COVID-19 is premature.
In truth, it is COVID-19 that has beaten the Philippines. The official number of Philippine COVID-19 cases and deaths does not tell the full story. The Economist (“The pandemic’s true death toll,” updated as of Nov. 20) estimates that excess deaths in the Philippines per 100,000 people can reach between 110 and 220. For a population of approximately 110 million, that means excess deaths ranging between 121,000 and 242,000. The high number of excess deaths also means a much bigger number of infections than what the official tally has registered.
The Economist defines excess deaths as “the gap between how many people died in a given region in a given time period, regardless of cause, and how many deaths would have been expected if a particular circumstance (such as a natural disaster or disease outbreak) had not occurred.” The large gaps, as a result of under-reporting or non-availability of data, among others, account for the rough estimate and wide variance. Nonetheless, The Economist is able to make “highly educated guesses” of the excess deaths through machine learning and the use of 121 statistical indicators.
It is not only high excess deaths that make the Philippine pandemic response a failure. The Philippines suffered the longest lockdown and one of the deepest recessions in the world during the pandemic. While locking down the economy made sense as a deliberate choice to flatten the COVID-19 curve, the Philippine government bungled it. The benefits from temporary lockdown — a fast and sharp reduction of infections and a quicker economic recovery — did not materialize.
That COVID-19 has infected a large portion of our population unnoticed is likely. It is thus plausible that the current decline in the number of cases is but a sign that COVID-19 has for the moment drained itself.
The respite, as it were, is welcome. But we have to remain vigilant and learn the lessons. The pandemic continues to shake the whole world. It might be a matter of time before COVID-19 strikes us again.
Even in countries that have the highest vaccination rates, infections are again rising. This is the result of the hasty relaxation of minimum public health standards like physical distancing and mask wearing and the waning effectiveness of vaccines. Several European countries have re-introduced lockdowns.
On the other hand, Japan’s success in taming the spread of the Delta variant has baffled public health experts. Japan, until recently, was struggling with the pandemic, which even threatened the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. But it turns out that what Japan did is pretty basic: continuing compliance with the minimum public health standards combined with vaccine uptake.
The Philippine situation is more precarious, in spite of the recent decline in cases. The vaccination rate remains low. Based on the data from the National COVID-19 Vaccination Operations Center (as of Nov. 3), only 36.56% of the target population has been fully vaccinated. The government’s goal is to fully vaccinate 70% of the population (equivalent to 77,129,058 individuals).
But even fully vaccinating 70% of the population falls short of achieving herd immunity. In fact, having herd immunity is no longer the practical objective, especially in the wake of the high transmissibility of the Delta variant. Rather, the goal is to prevent the population from getting severe COVID-19 and from dying.
In the National Capital Region (NCR), complacency is seeping in through the opening brought about by high vaccination coverage. The inequitable distribution of vaccines is most glaring when we juxtapose the fully vaccinated rate of 88.48% for the NCR with the rate of 9.84% for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
The rush to commerce and the festivity of the long Pinoy Christmas season also compound the danger of smugness and complacency.
But as the Department of Health (DoH) says: “We would like to remind the public that COVID-19 is still here.” In the same vein, the DoH points out: “The permeable nature of areas in the country combined with inter-zonal work assignments makes the NCR and other areas of the country vulnerable to forward transmission of COVID-19.”
COVID-19 is alive and kicking. It will be with us during and after the May 2022 elections.
Surely, COVID-19 will be the central issue in the elections. The candidate that has a track record in fighting COVID-19 and has a credible and solid program to contain the pandemic will win.
In this regard, the candidate of the incumbent administration is damaged goods. President Rodrigo Duterte’s survey rating on trust and performance, though still high, has started to tumble because of the corruption that became a brazen feature of the government’s pandemic response. This waning of support likewise affects his candidate, Bong Go. Worse, Bong Go has been tainted by his association with the people behind the overpriced procurement of COVID-19 supplies.
How about the frontrunner in the presidential race, Bongbong Marcos? He will likewise stumble. Even setting aside the devastating accusation hurled at him by President Duterte, we echo the President’s question: Ano ang ginawa niyan? What has he done?
So, I googled “Bongbong and COVID-19.” The top results are mainly about Bongbong testing positive for COVID-19.
I likewise googled “Leni and COVID-19.” The top results show both her initiatives and plans to contain the pandemic.
One article is about Leni Robredo’s pandemic response plan titled “Freedom from COVID-19.” Containing COVID-19 is the centerpiece of Leni’s platform. COVID-19 containment paves the way for robust economic recovery, the end of hunger, and the rise of jobs and incomes.
The item about left-leaning Bayan lauding “Robredo’s COVID response plan as solid” was a pleasant surprise for me. And the story titled “Palace appreciates Robredo’s initiatives to fight COVID-19” amused me.
There you are. The most worthy candidate with a track record and solid plan to fight COVID-19 is Leni Robredo.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.