Utterly humbling

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I was alerted by my doctor last November 2019 to be especially conscious about strengthening my immune system because he and several of his colleagues were witnessing a spike in respiratory illnesses and even pneumonia deaths. We then rearranged my medications and mixture of supplements to particularly protect me from influenza in general.

The month after, preparatory to a scheduled trip abroad, the same doctor again emphasized instructions to maintain my protective stance against colds and the flu. He said that the hospitals were getting so many patients complaining about respiratory illnesses and more deaths blamed to pneumonia. That was mid-December.

In January, the coronavirus was identified and introduced to the world as the Wuhan virus where it first erupted. Later, it was called the new coronavirus, the novel coronavirus (NCoV), and now COVID-19. When my doctor and I discussed the situation in Wuhan and Hubei, he shared a most serious concern. He believed that the Wuhan virus was already here and responsible for the spike of respiratory illness reported by colleagues in various hospitals; also, he suspected that the pneumonia deaths were mostly caused by the new virus as well. Except that the Philippines was not testing for the Wuhan virus and, in fact, had no capacity to do so at that time.

It is now moot and academic, as the legal term goes. The families of those who died did not question what caused the pneumonia and accepted it in its usual name then – hospital-borne pneumonia. But for those, like the DOH, who might be benefited by relevant data, I suggest that all hospitals should be asked to bare their records in the last three months to see a pattern from respiratory illnesses treated and pneumonia-caused deaths. If there is sincerity in learning lessons to avoid future epidemics, this information will be most useful.

For two full months, then, I have monitored most important news reports about the march of COVID-19 in one country after another. Even though I am not a doctor nor have had formal medical training, I had been involved with public health since the term of Dr. Flavier in the early 90s. At that time, I was with a small foundation trying to help “doctors in the barrio” by acquainting them with herbs and natural healing practices. Not much of a medical background but enough to notice patterns when I see one. Monitoring global developments about COVID-19 on a daily basis gave me a macro view of its growth pattern.

In other words, I felt a deep fear that we were in one calamity-in-the-making but largely unaffected by it. It was business as usual until two weeks ago when I could sense a panic grow in DOH and national government. I felt sorry for the DOH Secretary who could not possibly disclose the level of unprepared the national health system was. It did not even have testing kits in the beginning, and we had to wait for test results from laboratories in other countries. Yet, the Secretary during the press conferences had to act confident and show confidence in our health system.

Moot and academic because the plague is on us, and all our efforts should be focused on only one thing – saving the people, as many of them as possible, from the infection and possible death.

In countries aside from China that got hit with the Wuhan virus, lockdowns became the priority strategy for containment. Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan were hit early but exercised political will be immediate lockdowns of specific areas. Later, Iran and Italy were also hit but did not take the immediate response of a lockdown and continue today as the most affected by fatalities.

The Philippines, particularly Metro Manila, is severely challenged. We have to grapple with one of the worst population densities in the world, meaning an abnormal volume of people in a limited land area. That is quantity. A huge percentage of that abnormal volume people are poor, informal settlers. They are bunched like ant hills in several areas of the metropolis and there will be no social distancing possible with them. And when serious numbers get infected, they have no isolation areas in their communities. The real catastrophe can happen there.

Government and private hospitals will be overwhelmed if they are not already. So will be the medical and health workers assigned in all of them. They are our front lines, the primary blocking force against COVID-19. All of us must find solidarity behind them. We cannot let them fall.

The next line is the community quarantine. Even when some of the enemy has penetrated the first line, he must be contained in as small an area as possible. Only quarantine can do that. That means we must all protect the quarantine. If the enemy breaches our quarantine blockade, we have only our immune system and our prayers to help us.

This is why intelligent and decisive leadership must be exercised from the barangay level up. Public panic will lead to public chaos. There will not be enough policemen and soldiers to stop the disorder, not when their own families are infected and threatened with death. Any and all plans must have the barangay structure in the center of everything as we will all go to them.

And we must be encouraged by the generosity of those who are favored by wealth and authority. Filipinos know the limitation of government, and Filipinos also know of the spectacular wealth of the rich. This is the time to break down the walls that separate. Because social distancing will not hold the panic and anger of people who are desperately afraid for their families.

All the power structures and all the centers of wealth will now be tested. By a simple virus. The fragility of human life is exposed by a simple virus. It is so utterly humbling.

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