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Bacolod City, Philippines Friday, May 22, 2020
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Come To Think Of It
with Carlos Antonio L. Leonardia

Sleeping Beauty


Now that two months have passed since the lockdowns began and our leaders have run out of time, resources and ideas, the world as we know it is starting to reopen and if you are like me, seeing this past week unfold has been truly frightening.

We went into lockdown expecting our government to build up testing capacity, test as many people as it could, and put in place a comprehensive contact tracing system that would allow us to track down and stop coronavirus disease infections that are detected by our mass testing capabilities. For two months and then some, majority of us obeyed the appeals of our local and national governments, hoping that if we did our part, they would do their share.

Those who did not comply with the rules were either apprehended, fined, manhandled, beaten up, arrested, or pardoned. The penalty depended on how chummy the violators were with the powers that be. As the case of the mañanita police chief and his buddy the president demonstrated, the more powerful your friends, the easier it was for quarantine lapses to be forgiven.

For the most part, majority of us stayed home and locked ourselves in, hoping that the world would be a better and safer place for all once the best and brightest brains in government determined it was so and the recommended quarantines were lifted.

Well the quarantines have been eased and from what we have seen, heard and observed in the past few days; our world definitely does not feel safer. In fact, it feels outright terrifying right now and the thought of a second wave and its impact on our third world country is enough to giving waking night terrors.

First of all, we have not been testing enough to know when it is truly safe to return to normal. Our government has consistently missed its self-proclaimed testing targets over the past two months. First of all, despite recording our first case of COVID-19 in the country in January, the health officials of this country of more than 100 million people did not prepare any additional testing capacity before the end of March. They only got moving when it was too late, and up to now, they are still behind. Even if we can magically procure enough test kits, there are not enough labs, not enough reagents, not enough qualified personnel.

We are reopening our country only because our government cannot afford it anymore. There is not enough data to say it is already safe because we have not tested enough. Our testing rate, at less than 0.5% of our population, is pathetic. Early this week presidential spokesperson Roque and the Department of Labor essentially told us that there is no mass testing program for Filipinos and that any further testing will be the responsibility of employers. Because government was unable to achieve this basic requirement for handing a pandemic, the word “mass testing” was made into a bad word and from now on, we should refer to it as “modified enhanced testing with lactobacilli”

So there, over the past two months, our government has not tested enough Filipinos to be sure of where we truly are in the fight against COVID-19. But it is running out of money for ayuda so it is passing the testing buck to the private sector and employers. That is why we have to go back to work now, because our employers will test us.

Aside from the testing failure, we also failed to do anything significant or innovative on the other factor in the equation, which is contact tracing.

An effective contact tracing system would allow us to trace back all possible infections once a person has been tested and found to be COVID positive. While we were stuck in our homes, this was not very important. But if we are going to go out into the world where testing is not available from government, contact tracing becomes a matter of life or death.

Government had 2 months to put in place a system for contact tracing. It could’ve used the ubiquity of mobile phones by developing a contact tracing app. Or fast track a national ID system equipped with RFID or NFC chips, or even just QR codes that can use technology to do the hard work of tracing every contact. It could’ve thrown a literal army of IT developers and coders to do the job so it is ready when our doors, businesses and borders are open because, you know, we haven’t tested enough so we might as well get it right in the other side of the equation.

A contact tracing app or an easily scannable ID could face some resistance due to potential invasions of privacy but I don’t think too many would complain given the severity of our situation and the urgency of a solution that would allow semi-normal life to restart.

But after 2 months, we got nothing. No mass testing, no contact tracing system. We are now easing quarantine restrictions after a long pause where it would seem that absolutely nothing of note was done by the people who should’ve been burning the midnight oil looking for any and all workable solutions to the national problem of restarting our lives in the time of COVID-19.

It’s like government also went on pause with us, only to go on a 2 month power nap, when we expected it to be gearing up like crazy, setting up protections and systems for the eventual reopening of the world. Instead, it looks like it was content with shutting our cities down, setting up checkpoints, issuing laminated quarantine passes, and giving out ayudas. Was that where our billions of pesos to heal as one went?

When we went on quarantine, the optimistic ones among us expected it be like Sleeping Beauty, where an evil force puts the heroine to sleep until she is awakened by prince charming and we live happily ever after. It turns out our prince charming was sleeping with us the entire time, until he got hungry. Then he woke up, and rudely shook us awake, demanding not just breakfast, but to be spoonfed. Meanwhile, the world is still the same and the evil still lurks. To top it off, prince charming isn’t even charming, but a gang of bastos, gaslighting, abusive, bullies who are compulsive liars, and neither keep their word nor promises.

Perhaps we should all go back to sleep.*  

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