“Why are we jeopardizing what healthcare workers have died for and are still laboring to achieve?”
The Philippines is massively in debt in part because the government needed to finance its COVID-19 response. But how effective is the battle when conflicting behaviors and declarations within society weaken COVID restrictions and increase the risk of a surge in infections?
Spending on COVID
The national government ended 2021 with P11.73 trillion in outstanding debt, the Bureau of Treasury said in early February. Over a year, government debt grew by nearly P2 trillion or 19.7% year-on-year. This was partly because the government had to borrow to fund its pandemic response, including the purchase of coronavirus vaccines from abroad.
Such spending was necessary to curb the spread of the virus and provide Filipinos with protection. Given that, shouldn’t we build on the gains in order not to waste the taxpayers’ money that was spent? On a personal level, this means adhering to minimum safety protocols as well as limiting our personal exposure to the virus.
However, all the measures we have been told over the past two years to adopt and practice have nearly been overturned by the frenetic reopening of the economy. Economists say this is necessary to revitalize business activities that have been in the doldrums since March 2020. But should we do so at the risk of public health?
Here are some examples of behaviors that don’t walk the talk.
Government pushing onsite work
One directive that increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission is the government’s insistence that certain businesses reopen their onsite operations, such as BPOs and government offices.
This is something that BPOs, for one, have been pushing back against because they discovered they are doing just as well, if not better, with two-thirds of their employees working remotely (the industry, worth some $29 billion, was the only sector that grew amid the pandemic).
In fact, when the Fiscal Incentives Review Board ordered call centers to return to full office operations this month or lose their tax perks, BPOs said many of them had let go of their office spaces over the past two years. They face resignations even as they deal with high attrition rates, because many BPO employees prefer to work from home.
Their reasons? WFH keeps them safe from COVID-19 and from travel dangers, prevents burnout, and helps them save money by removing the need to spend on food and transportation. In other words, their net income has increased, and that’s always a good thing.
However, despite remote work being widely accepted in other countries as a work strategy and not merely an option, the Philippine government is lagging behind the times as it seeks to artificially prop up small businesses by forcing employees to return to onsite work, instead of allowing companies and workers to choose the best work models for themselves and encouraging entrepreneurs to shift to businesses that are competitive in the digital world.
Here’s another move that invites exposure to the coronavirus. Quiapo Church, home of the revered Black Nazarene statue, recently announced the resumption of the ‘pahalik’ practice in line with the Holy Week observance, albeit with restrictions.
Fr. Douglas Badong, the parochial vicar, said there is no actual kissing of the image, “but it means the people can touch” it. Ushers will be present to assist devotees, who were reminded to observe minimum health protocols including physical distancing and wearing a face mask.
“Before they will be allowed to touch the image, they have to sanitize, spray alcohol on their hands,” Badong said.
However, he also said there will be no limit on the number of people allowed inside the church, which is risky given that COVID-19 is spread via close contact, crowds.
“Anyone who is within six feet of [an infected] person can breathe it [coronavirus droplets] into their lungs,” reads an article on WebMD. “Research shows that the virus can live in the air for up to three hours… The virus can live on surfaces like plastic and stainless steel for two to three days.”
Some four days after this announcement by the Quiapo Church, the Department of Health advised churches and the public to forego kissing religious images to avoid the spread of diseases.
“We just advise, and we request our churches kung maari lang po sana itong practice na ito ay hindi na muna natin ipatupad,” said Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire in a media forum.
So here are the health experts wearily warning the public once again from engaging in activities that could spread the coronavirus. We have lived in a pandemic for two years, this should be common-sense already. It seems that the urge to return to a pre-pandemic, ‘normal’ lifestyle is too strong for some. But the reality is, what constitutes ‘normal’ has drastically changed.
Another activity that poses risk of transmission are the political rallies. Tens of thousands of people congregate to cheer for their favorite candidate. While this was an accepted, and expected, practice during the pre-pandemic years, it’s not a good idea now. But can people be prevented from doing this? It seems not.
These are only some of the careless behaviors we as a society have been indulging in. But the virus is still very much around and surges are still occurring. Shanghai is right now experiencing its biggest COVID-19 outbreak, and the government has imposed strict restrictions there.
Am I being overly cautious? Perhaps, but you see, I have lost friends and relatives to COVID. In my work as an editor of obituaries of people who have died over the past two years of the pandemic, I have read many heartbreaking stories of COVID deaths. Each death is one too many.
So why are we putting all the government spending and debt for COVID response on the line? Why are we risking more lives by conducting unsafe activities? Why are we jeopardizing what healthcare workers have died for and are still laboring to achieve?
*** FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO