Industries have to be agile if they are to find the balance between public health and safety and the revitalization of the economy. How to prioritize both lives and livelihood, especially in the light of the new MECQ, was tackled by leaders from the health, business, and academic sectors in the virtual business forum, “Can the Philippines Dance with COVID-19?”, held last August 5.
The speakers were Secretary Vince Dizon, National Action Plan Against COVID-19 Deputy Chief Implementer and Testing Czar; Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary Rosette Vergeire; former DOH secretary Dr. Manuel “Manolet” Dayrit; Josephine Gotianun-Yap, CEO of the Filinvest Development Corporation; and University of the Philippines College of Public Health (UPCPH) Dean Dr. Vicente Belizario. Joining them in the panel discussion were Lars Wittig, European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ECCP) Vice President and Country Manager of Regus and Spaces, and George Royeca, Chief Transport Advocate of Angkas. Amor Maclang, Chairwoman of the ECCP’s Innovation Committee and communications technical advisor to the DOH, was panel moderator.
Secretary Dizon, the country’s designated testing czar, has dedicated himself tirelessly to TASK FORCE T3 (Test, Trace, Treat) over the past few months, the task force convened by the Inter-Agency Task Force – National Task Force (IATF-NTF) and the Department of Health (DOH). For his part, he described how the government fast-tracked in its response as the number of cases kept rising. While only a limited number of people were tested at the start of the outbreak, the capacity for testing has improved, as the labs increased from one to 96 in four months. “From 500 tests a day in March, we are now doing 35,000 tests today,” he said, “We are pushing to do more tests. We are [now] one of the countries who test the most in Asia and far outpacing the other countries in [the region].”
Secretary Dizon also pointed out that collaboration is critical to achieve more results. “We have to push more in places with high spreads like Calabarzon. It’s all about execution and coming together. “Lahat tayo ay Pilipino at ngayon natin kailangang magsama-sama. Isaisantabi na natin ang iba’t ibang kulay at di pagkakaunawaan. Kailangan ng pagtutulungan tulad ng nangyari kamakailan na nagbunga ng pagtaas ng ating testing capacity sa halip ng dalawang buwan. At kung tuluy-tuloy ang ating pagtutulungan, magiging epektibo ang laban natin sa Covid-19.”
Usec. Vergeire shared how the DOH is collaborating with the medical communities on increasing contact and recovery efforts in the barangay level during this MECQ. She said, “We will not wait for patients to go to us; we will go to them. [We will] check for symptoms, and if there are exposed people, do necessary interventions. Eventually once we sustain this, the LGUs will be more empowered.” The USEC also emphasized that “DOH is leading this response.”
Dr. Belizario pointed out that accurate communication with the public is needed “to lower the risk of COVID-19 to low, low levels so it doesn’t pose a risk to a significant number of the population and to public areas. We need to train young people to become effective communicators for behavior change. It is not enough to put up posters and ads—we have to make sure that these materials result in behavior modification.”
Complementing communication is the use of data to track COVID-19’s status. He said, “Enhanced surveillance and response in the regions and provinces and capacity is built even in the periphery so we can act quickly in the collection and processing of data—and [provide them to] local and national authorities.”
Dr. Dayrit gave his insights on how to realistically reduce the number of cases: “Don’t fixate on the total number of cases. A large proportion of them have already died or recovered. So what are the new cases occurring everyday? This is where we can intervene.”
Dr. Dayrit, a member of Task Force T3, also cited the importance of building capacity in various aspects throughout the entire medical supply chain, including testing, laboratories, isolation, contact tracing, and hospital beds. He emphasized, “We need to invest in and modernize our health system because we will face similar medical challenges in the future. Many of these facilities have been neglected over time. Now we’re trying to get them to perform at a level to fight this virus. This is a chance to rise to the occasion.”
Playing a key role for her work in the T3 task force, Ms. Gotianun-Yap emphasizes the importance of data management in preventing the spread of COVID-19, seeing how it can protect industry employees, customers, business partners, and communities. Her company used the StaySafe app for “daily health reporting and app-based contact tracing. It’s important for us to have a data system to track COVID-19.” She envisioned the building of a “data end-to-end system that can track Covid-19 and link hospitals and clinics. The public will be notified if they come into contact with a positive-tested person.”
Setting best practices for the private sector’s role in preventing transmission of COVID-19, Filinvest was also the first to install safety measures at the initial stages of the outbreak. To prevent infection through commuting, it provided shuttle services for employees. BPO tenants were also allowed to sleep in their office premises. Testing for the workforce, especially the frontliners, were regularly conducted. Mall operations were reinvented to encourage social distancing, and all of its premises, offices, outlets, stores, and other stores were frequently sanitized.
Mr. Wittig agreed that success in containing COVID-19 boils down to “a matter of execution and with the significant contribution of the private enterprise. We have [also] surpassed other countries in testing.” He also said that data-driven efforts like what Filinvest is doing “is helping everyone to see the face of the beast so we can act accordingly.”
Ms. Maclang mentioned how the return of MECQ illuminated the constant challenge posed by the disease: “We have to learn to live with COVID-19 possibly for a long while. If we need a little rest from the fight, then let’s take this time to learn how to dance. We have to recalibrate our actions and improve what we are already doing to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.”
Mr. Royeca pointed out the importance of individual responsibility to foster collaboration: “There are gaps in implementation, but it has to start with ourselves. When we go out, we wear masks, do social distancing, etc. The public needs to know they have a big responsibility. The private sector needs to know our role. Let’s use this virus not to be divisive but to unify us. COVID-19 doesn’t care about differences so let’s work together and try to solve it.”
Dancing with coronavirus may take a series of complicated steps, but it might be the only feasible approach to protect the lives of millions of Filipinos, while restoring their livelihoods. USec. Vergeire summed up the urgency of the situation, saying, “We have two weeks to recalibrate our responses and stop the spread of infection. The sacrifices of people during the MECQ should not be in vain. There is no more national or local, we are all in this together. If we can all collaborate, we can beat COVID-19.”