Malacañang’s announcement of easing community quarantines, including the capital shifting to a Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ), is a mystery – and not just because it was reportedly decided by “secret ballot”.
The number of new cases is still rising with 17,231 additional cases reported as of August 19, 2021, which is more than the 14,895 reported the day before.
Meanwhile, there are no signs of the government taking additional measures to fix the health system during the last two weeks of stricter lockdowns. We’re no better at tracking COVID-19 cases and isolating just those infected or at risk. We’re no better at treating those who need hospitalization. And we’re no better at how we treat our health workers.
If the health system is as weak as ever, what’s our way out of the pandemic? Just to remind us all:
1) Only 64,934 individuals were tested as of August 20 when at least 220,000 were needed to bring the 26.1% positivity rate down nearer the 5% target. As many Filipinos experiencing symptoms can’t afford the costly RT-PCR test, free mass testing is still needed especially in severely affected regions Central Visayas, Western Visayas, Northern Mindanao, and Davao.
2) The contact tracing ratio of 1:5 reported as of August 19 is still far below the required 1:25 to 1:37. Not only is the government not testing enough, but it also isn’t even bothering to trace all the required close contacts of those identified as COVID-19 positive.
3) The Philippines’ genome sequencing capacity is only at 1% or less while other countries strive to sample 30% of active cases. Not quickly identifying the Delta and other variants prevents understanding of their transmission and hinder efforts to slow their spread.
4) Our hospitals are quickly getting filled up and 73% of intensive care unit beds nationwide are already occupied as of August 20. Thirteen (13) of 40 DOH hospitals in severely affected regions are at the critical occupancy stage while six (6) are at high risk. Public hospital capacity needs to be expanded with more hospital beds and equipment especially in highly affected regions.
5) Only 12.9 million Filipinos or 11.9% of the population are fully vaccinated out of the 70 million targeted by year-end. Vaccine procurement and administration should be expedited not only in the National Capital Region (NCR) but elsewhere especially in highly infected regions.
6) Forty percent (40%) of nurses nationwide have reportedly resigned due to meager pay and exhaustion. There are also reports that most government hospitals have a shortage of 40-50 nurses based on bed capacity. More health workers need to be hired and given the remuneration, allowances, and benefits they need and deserve.
The proposed 2022 budget will be submitted to Congress and made public in a few days. Will we see meaningful increases in allocations for promotive and preventive health care including routine care, policy and standards development, strengthening health systems including facilities enhancement, public health, and epidemiology and surveillance?
The budget for promotive and preventive health care increased from ₱38 billion in 2020 to ₱56 billion in 2021 – but the budget for health facilities enhancement was slashed and there was only a meager increase for epidemiology and surveillance program.
The Health Facilities Enhancement Program budget has been continuously falling from 2019 (₱15.9 billion) to 2020 (₱8.4 billion) and 2021 (₱7.8 billion). The ₱158.6 million budget for epidemiology and surveillance in 2021 is also less than its ₱262.9-million allocation in 2019 (although at least an increase from ₱115.5 million in 2020).
The low priority given to these underlies the inadequate health infrastructure for COVID response, which the misuse of Department of Health (DOH) funds recently reported by the Commission on Audit (COA) only made worse.