FIRING LINE: Filipinos vs. India variant

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By Robert B. Roque, Jr.

By our own witnessing of how the coronavirus blew up into a pandemic within months of its outbreak in Wuhan, China, we all have a fair understanding that this is an enemy that crosses borders and infiltrates societies without warning.

We have also understood that as widely as the virus spreads, so do mutations become a natural phenomenon for it to survive human resistance. Thus, the world has seen second-wave transmissions of COVID-19 with the emergence of the UK and South African variants and, more recently, the B.1.617 variant from India.

It is scary how India — a nation of 1.39 billion people, considered the Pharmacy of the World, and with relatively easier access to COVID-19 vaccines — is being beaten down by this new variant. The variant has already infected 23 million of its population and collapsed its healthcare system in a matter of weeks.

Laying these facts down as a pretext helps remind us about how fragile a situation we are in — not just as a nation of Filipinos but as global citizens. It also helps us understand that it is not really anyone’s fault. So it is useless, ignorant and cruel even to blame or discriminate against people from the UK, South Africa, or India.

India, whose daily coronavirus cases averaged 390,000 the past week and deaths of well over 3,800, deserves our prayers, compassion, and — even in our own difficulties — a measure of our help. But as a defense, of course, our government shut our gateways to travelers not just from India but from the rest of South Asia to include Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, at least until tomorrow.

By our own discernment, we knew from the very beginning that this vicious variant would reach our shores. In our experience with the UK and South African variants, we knew it was not a matter of “if” but of “when.”

And last Tuesday, the Department of Health confirmed the detection of two cases of the B.1.617 variant in the country courtesy of two Filipinos – not from India or South Asia – but Oman and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East. Now that we know the answer to “when,” the next question should be, “what now?”

First, the government will have to determine what mitigation measures it plans to continue or set up in our entry points and our quarantine mechanisms. Second, the healthcare system should have ample support in anticipation of another wave of infections – more beds and spaces, more respirator machines, more medical oxygen, more drugs like Remdesivir, and more compassionate use permits for Ivermectin. Third, testing and contact-tracing efforts should improve a hundred-fold. Fourth, vaccination will have to be stepped up according to supply for every willing citizen.

Call me paranoid, but it doesn’t help that the most aggressive variant of COVID-19, which the World Health Organization already classifies as a “global variant of concern,” arrives in the Philippines at a time when health experts in the United States also deduce that the virus we have been acquainted with for more than a year now is actually “airborne.” That’s another story.

Finally, we as Filipinos should also ask ourselves “what to do” because we are past the question “are we prepared?” The Indian variant of COVID-19 is here, folks. And while our daily confirmed cases are whittling down due to the modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ), it is no guarantee for us to ease up on wearing masks and face shields, washing up often, keeping distance, and avoiding closed spaces and poorly ventilated public places.

We have to make a determined choice to combat this B.1.617 variant from India together. And if the gauge for teamwork is the basketball courts filled with health protocol violators or mobs who resist discipline at community pantries; or 300 summer bodies frolicking at Gubat sa Ciudad Resort in Caloocan City, then we’re doomed.

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