Inside a live crisis

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

“Becoming Emotional” | Photo by UN Migration via Flickr/Creative Commons

When the statistics were about infections, they caused concern and alarm. But when the statistics are about deaths, the reactions take on a different nuance. The message of infections had always been tempered with massive recoveries’ attendant information, consistently assuring Filipinos that 98% or more will recover from Covid-19. Thankfully, that recovery rate is being proven true.

I understand that the government, specifically the Department of Health (DOH), believes it must not cause panic and lead people to look at the brighter side of life. I agree, too. Society cannot just deteriorate into panic and depression even if there are reasons to do so. I do not have to explain how life needs to be spiked by hope to keep the spirit and human behavior steady and productive. I have devoted decades to be a hope-bearer along with many others.

The DOH has been around for a long time, over a century from its fledgling beginnings to what it is now. I do not have to tell them about keeping the population as calm as possible in times of great difficulty – whether war, epidemics, or disasters. But I believe that they understand that the dynamic movement of calm and panic in stressful situations depends almost entirely on how prepared people are, materially and emotionally, and how authorities handle the situation. In other words, credibility in the worst of times is a major determinant.

“Preparedness of the public. How prepared are the Filipino people? Some are, and most are not. The last 13 months have slapped us in the face as far as our preparedness, or lack of it. Hunger had surged in the 2nd and 3rd quarter of 2020 despite the Ayuda of the national government.”

Preparedness of the public. How prepared are the Filipino people? Some are, and most are not. The last 13 months have slapped us in the face as far as our preparedness, or lack of it. Hunger had surged in the 2nd and 3rd quarter of 2020 despite the Ayuda of the national government. The target beneficiaries of that Ayuda tell us the story of preparedness, from the side of government and the people’s side. Of course, the government was more prepared as Bayanihan I & II were quickly decided and funded.

But the Ayuda targeted a huge percentage of Filipino families; in fact, inordinately so as Bayanihan, I tried to reach 80% of these. In other words, the same government that told us how improved the poverty situation was itself believed that 80% of families needed relief, especially for food. The truth of our preparedness rose to the surface. Simply, we are badly unprepared materially. Emotionally, though, we have been much more resilient. For 13 months, we have meekly followed government orders.

The Ayuda, though, cannot be sustained by government funds to the level of Bayanihan I, or even Bayanihan II. The government apparently started with a healthy balance sheet, as did most companies. The first months of the lockdown were responded to by the government and big business with aggressive support. That is not the situation anymore. Both government and big business know they are at the edge. That is why vaccines are critical to them. Vaccines are bearing the brunt of expectations.

“The first months of the lockdown were responded to by the government and big business with aggressive support. That is not the situation anymore. Both government and big business know they are at the edge. That is why vaccines are critical to them. Vaccines are bearing the brunt of expectations.”

With vaccines being made the savior of society, resources and communication campaigns are devoted to bringing home that message of hope. With more resources for vaccines, there will be fewer resources for Ayuda. This jolting reality is now being experienced by the Ayuda distribution today, with fewer target beneficiaries and fewer amounts.

The other jolting reality is the delay of vaccines in the context of their being the messiah in a real crisis. Those who embrace as the messiah will criticize them for every week of delay. And here lies a serious contradiction of sorts as most Filipinos do not look forward to being vaccinated. The opposite extremes of Philippine society are in active play again, for and against.

Both government and big business will be pushing the vaccines, with funds and with public exhortations. Given our history, most Filipinos are not familiar with being vaccinated. That is why there is an intuitive fear of vaccination. Over time, however, the upper extreme will get its way. Filipinos will be vaccinated, whether they want to at this moment. The majority will realize that they must pay the price for being materially unprepared. Poverty will still bow to the dictates of power and wealth.

Meanwhile, great apprehension is now gripping Metro Manila and many provinces. The DOH was again unprepared for the surge, for the curve’s fattening, despite warnings from statistical experts that it was coming. Even worse than the worst of 2020, the health system has been overwhelmed. The DOH may show that there is still available space in hospitals, but they’re never is when a patient needs it in a life and death situation. Grotesquely, the DOH is spared from sheer mayhem because most of the poor do not even try to get into that overwhelmed system. They lie there, they hope to recover there, or they die there.

“I suggest they take death seriously, each death as important, or they will undervalue total deaths. Most of all, each avoidable death must be their mission to prevent. Let that be their North Star.”

It is incumbent upon the health authorities to be proactive and even aggressive in coming up with emergency measures. Knowing what they know, knowing the level of unpreparedness of both the people and the official system, and knowing that people will not just give up on their health and lives, they will turn to whatever option is available and affordable. It may be traditional, it may be herbal, or it may be medicines like Ivermectin. It is not the DOH and FDA’s role today to act as though we are in a normal situation.

People are dying at rates that will cause panic to grow. Maybe, as doctors themselves, health officials have become used to dying. Maybe, death has surrounded doctors all their professional lives. I suggest they take death seriously, each death as important, or they will undervalue total deaths. Most of all, each avoidable death must be their mission to prevent. Let that be their North Star.

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