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The test

Despite the low numbers detected and reported by the Department of Health all throughout December, the Omicron variant has definitely been spreading in the country, among our communities and bubbles as we celebrated that most happiest time of the year.

We probably all knew from experience that the DOH was downplaying the threat and fudging the numbers, but the Christmas party loving Filipinos simply couldn’t resist the temptations of the season. This massive COVID-19 surge that we are currently experiencing is the result of the deadly cocktail composed of our government/DOH inaction, Omicron and the holiday season.

We swung from record lows in early December to record highs in early January. The COVID-19 infections and that damned positivity rate that we were finally able to control to acceptable levels after two years of a trial and error pandemic response are now shooting through the roof. Fortunately for us, although Omicron more infectious than Delta, it is supposed to cause milder infections and that may explain the lower hospitalization and ICU usage rates and deaths.

However, its infectiousness means even the fully vaccinated and boostered are vulnerable. As for those who are not vaccinated, it just means that the risk of infection, severe disease and death that was doubled by Delta is now doubled up once more by Omicron. If vaccinated and boostered people are afraid of Omicron, then I wouldn’t know how would feel if I were unvaxxed. But then, I wouldn’t know how they feel or think because unlike them, I got myself vaccinated and boostered at the first opportunity.

In the midst of this massive global surge, what would be great right now for a country like the Philippines is improved testing. I’d throw a proper contact tracing system into the wish list too but since our dear leader keeps on insisting that we are a poor country, and I’m assuming we can only wish for one of the many tools that we should’ve used effectively against COVID.

COVID testing in the Philippines sucks. It sucks because it is expensive and it sucks more because even if it were miraculously made free or more affordable, a positive result to the breadwinner can be devastating for poor families that live on a hand to mouth existence.

Filipinos don’t want to take a COVID test because it costs at least PhP3,500 each. If the average minimum daily wage is P350, that’s 10 days’ worth of work. And guess what, those who get a positive result will most likely lose up to another 10 days’ worth of work. At P350/day, that’s another P3500. For the few lucky Filipino laborers who can work full-time 24-26 days a month, they’d be left with only 4-6 days of income if they got an RT-PCR test that came out positive. The jobless and the underemployed that are already in the red get buried further in debt. Without ayuda or any form of safety net, COVID-19 testing is not an option for most of our struggling population that live in poverty.

The above math equation is why making mass COVID-19 testing possible is not as easy it seems in this country. We could’ve tried solving that equation two damn years ago had we put scientists, health experts and economists on the case but our President mostly assigned retired generals who are obviously none of the above instead.

Based on the excellent numbers we finally achieved in December 2021, it would seem that the Philippines could finally beat COVID-19. However, it took us only one Happy Holiday to mess things up and here we are, looking like back to zero as we face the Omicron surge.

The difference between January 2021 and 2022 is we cannot spend another entire year whittling our infection statistics back to early December 2021 levels. We need drastic and decisive action to do what we have shown can be done. Mass testing is going to be critical if we are going to try achieving in 1 month what took the Duterte government most of 2020 and 2021.

We need RT-PCR tests to be widely available and if not free, much more affordable. The poor people will need a safety net if they test positive or they still won’t get tested even if it’s free. We need to study the antigen option. And yes, it’s still not too late in the game to need a better and integrated contact tracing system, but that’s already off topic.

Vaccination is ongoing and the lucky people of Bacolod City and Negros Occ. might be able to achieve herd immunity within the next couple of months. However, as the mutation package dubbed Omicron has proven, vaccination is not enough and we will still need a proper pandemic response package. The lesson we will learn from the holiday season of 2021 is that testing and contact tracing cannot be ignored just because we are already vaccinating.

The only question is: is there anyone working on this or are we just going to close our eyes, cover our ears, tuck our heads between our legs, and hope to the Gods our dear leader cursed that this will all somehow go away?*

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