Mapping out an exit plan



We met recently with OCTA Research and some members of the private sector to come up with a proposal on how the Philippines can start moving on from the pandemic. Around the world, there is a growing chorus for a return to normal life. It is a debate that is unfolding in many countries.


It is understandable how two years of disruption can be too much for many societies, including those who have patiently waited out wave after wave of infections with measures meant to delay and decrease the adverse impact on the population’s health. But that’s exactly what they were: measures meant to delay and decrease the impact.


One can only do so much with delaying and decreasing. Our MSMEs cannot afford to wait for much longer. Every day spent shuttered is one day of lost income and opportunity. On a larger scale, every day that our country is shut out from the rest of the world is a day of lost income and opportunity. Our neighbors in Asia seem to know this.


Among the Asian countries, only the Philippines, Myanmar, and Japan have the strictest travel restrictions. The rest have either lifted curfews and stay-at-home orders, opened their borders to non-citizens and non-residents, and have allowed all or most commercial flights to the country.


But even in cautious Japan, there are increasing calls to treat COVID as endemic, from the governor of Tokyo to former PM Shinzo Abe. The latter, in particular, was quoted in an interview, saying, “We need to be cautious of Omicron, but if drugs and vaccines can prevent the disease from becoming severe, we could treat COVID like seasonal influenza.”


The Philippines’s economic health has become a serious issue and should be treated as such. I believe it is time that we turn our attention to how the country will exit this pandemic.


To begin, we must reinstate the international travel protocols in place prior to Dec. 3 last year, which was three days’ quarantine for the fully vaccinated, and testing prior to departure and upon arrival. This was already in place when cases started to drop following the Delta surge, but was put on hold when Omicron started driving up new infections.


However, we have learned many things since then, and this time we must do better. We must update our quarantine protocols to reflect the experience and success of other countries. Specifically, allowing the use of rapid antigen tests 24 hours prior to departure and again upon arrival at a designated facility - much like the US’s international travel protocol. We might also consider taking a cue from our neighbor, Thailand, which decided on a “test-and-go” system where only one day is spent at a hotel quarantine facility while waiting for the test results.


Moreover, to further ease the bottlenecks at the quarantine facilities, we must consider exempting from quarantine those who have had COVID within 60 days of travel, with an RT-PCR test to prove such. We all know remnants of the virus can still linger on and create false positives.


The government should re-examine the use of facility-based quarantines and instead re-allocate its resources to more intensive surveillance of positive COVID cases among arriving passengers. Doing so will generate more data that will be indispensable in guiding future policy decisions. Eventually, we must be open to home quarantines for arriving international passengers.


This will allow us to accept more incoming travelers, including business and foreign travelers. By doing so, we help our airlines return to viability, and we help our tourism sector, which has been closed to international travelers for the last two years. Down the line, the shuttle operators, the small sari-sari stores, the banca operators, and the souvenir shops will get a chance to earn a living once more.


As a parallel effort, we will have to rationalize lockdowns in areas where vaccination levels are 90 percent or higher. As we saw during the last Omicron wave in the NCR, when Pinoys got sick, they stayed home and restricted their movement even without the government imposing an Alert Level 4. Whether it was fear or a sense of responsibility, the point is, we must give our countrymen enough credit that they have learned how to live with the virus during the last two years.


At some point, the pandemic will reach endemicity. The scenario that is now being thought as most likely is that COVID will become like the flu. Not a cold, it must be emphasized, but a flu - which may be fatal to vulnerable people. And like the flu, vaccinations for the vulnerable will be life-saving.


We are doing everything possible to convince the unvaccinated. Ultimately, however, it will be their choice and they must bear the consequences that come with their choice.


It is time to assure the vaccinated to take that leap of faith and believe that the vaccines work. Vaccines and boosters will not insulate them from infection, but they will be protected from severe illness and death. The next few months will be critical in how the country will move on from the pandemic. I believe the government should set an example and start opening the country to the world. This will instill confidence in the vaccines and encourage more of our countrymen to take them.



Source: Go Negosyo - www.philstar.com