With 208 Covid cases, Quo vadis, Bicol?

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III shocked the country last May 21 when he pronounced that the Philippines is already on the second wave of Coronavirus disease strand 19 (Covid – 19). Whatever the basis of the Health Secretary is, the chart of daily recorded cases says otherwise. If he is the health minister in Japan or New Zealand, he could have resigned by now. Unfortunately, we are in the Philippines and integrity is just in the trash bin.

The way Duque read the charts and writings on the wall is just the same as some local chief executives in Bicol do. While Manila was still under the enhanced community quarantine, a number of governors and mayors were busy transporting their constituents from Manila to their provinces and municipalities in addition to the Presidential Management Staff’s “Hatid-Probinsiya Program”.

Covid-19 Cases in Bicol Region

On July 9, Bicol Region has 208 Covid-19 cases. 82 of these are in Albay, 83 in Camarines Sur, 18 in Masbate, 11 in Sorsogon, 8 in Catanduanes, and 6 in Camarines Norte.

Most of the cases are known to be either locally stranded individuals (LSIs) or returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs) and came to the region starting May 27 when the quarantines were relaxed and when the “pa-bibos” were actively fetching their constituents from other places. Partial travel history analysis shows that 17 of the infected individuals came from Metro Manila, 8 from Region 4 (CALABARZON), 5 each from Cebu and overseas, and one from (Region 3) Central Luzon.

The numbers in Region 5 of the infected individuals per 1 million population may be low compared to the 464 cases at the national level and 1,542 cases worldwide.. Bicol’s mortality rate for Covid cases is also low at 3% while recovery rate is very high at 42.9%.

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But while the regional figures are low, anxiety and loses due to economic shutdowns are high. Many are suffering now from anxiety attack both from Covid-19, the delayed social amelioration benefits, and unemployment. The closure of ports and borders has likewise triggered stress because food finds it difficult to reach the plates.

For these, it is not surprising to hear that Masbate Governor Toy Kho was mad because the influx of LSIs, to which he never was consulted with in the first place, has triggered the increase of positive cases in the once Covid-free province. Note that it Masbate was among the first few island-provinces who closed their ports to prevent Covdi-19. Such an effort just went to the trash bin because of the Hatid-Probinsiya and Balik-Probinsiya programs. And Kho’s anger is also justifiable because Masbate’s health system doesn’t seem prepared to face the pressure.

Then, we hear Pioduran Mayor Alan Arandia also expressing his getting mad as well because when Kho closed Masbate again, he had to host the LSIs in his municipality. If his local government will not be able to provide food and shelter to these LSIs, the latter may be forced to roam around the town in order to survive. If these LSIs have not been tested, then a local Covid outbreak is always possible.

What Arandia fears is already starting in Sorsogon particularly in Pilar and Bulan, both jump off points to Masbate, and in Matnog, the port that connects to Northern Samar and the Eastern Visayas Region. Pilar and Matnog are the top two highly Covid-infected areas in the southernmost province of mainland Luzon.

Deafening Silence

But, has somebody heard the objections of Kho and a few protective mayors and barangay chairmen?

Unfortunately, after the increase in the number of Covid-cases, nobody made a loud noise. The sound that Governor Chiz Escudero made came from a pen in an executive order prohibiting home quarantines. The executive order came about after a series of flip-flopping decisions — an indication that his advisers have to balance political and health risks. Camarines Sur Governor Migz Villafuerte was not as vocal but when the 24 Covid-19 cases were recorded on July 7, the Del Gallego checkpoint became strict. As for Albay, well, it was the sound of the doors closing in the Sangguniang Panlalawigan after one of its employee tested positive. In short, the later sounds were just like a silent fart compared to the noise and pomp made when the LSIs were fetched.

Even the national government offices were silent. No statement was ever issued by the PNR, the Department of Transportation, the Presidential Management Staff, the Office of Senator Bong Go, and other participating agencies when cases spiked. Clearly, no one wanted to be held accountable.

But, who bears the burden? The general public and the taxpayers. And who experiences the anxiety and stress? The members of the communities and, of course, with a few politicians.

While it is understandable that local and national leaders need to balance different variables including politics, a bigger lens could have been used. True, nothing beats the comfort of home and family but that longing could have been tempered with by the appropriate assistance to the LSIs and ROFs itching to return to Bicol. They could have been given appropriate shelter, communication facilities, and food along with the explanation on the costs. Instead of sending buses, the receiving local government units could have just coordinated with hotels or temporary housing facilities for shelter, and sent food for these LSIs. The initial cost may be higher than the bus rentals and may not even carry the tarps bearing the names of the local politicians but at least said response won’t contribute to the increase of Covid-19 cases in the towns and cities of Bicol as well as pump up the worries of the members of the communities that will receive these LSIs.

But with the increase of cases that cannot anymore be undone, are mitigation measures already set in place to prevent the local transmission? Must the rest of Bicolanos suffer again another lockdown for the less-studied decisions of the local and national “pabibo” officials?

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