On December 31, 2019, a day before the world entered into a new year, the first case of what has come to be known as the 2019 novel coronavirus acute respiratory disease was reported in Wuhan, China. As of press time, over 35,000 cases have been confirmed across 28 countries worldwide, leaving over 800 people dead. Most of these deaths have so far been in China, with only two deaths—one in the Philippines and one in Hong Kong—confirmed outside the country.
Last January 30, the Philippines confirmed its first case, a 38-year-old Chinese female who flew in from Wuhan. Three days later, a second case was confirmed, a 44-year-old Chinese male from Wuhan, who later became the first casualty in the country and outside China, followed by another case days after. As of writing, over 100 people, most of whom had come into contact with the reported individuals, are currently under investigation.
But before these cases were reported, the country was slow to respond to the fast spreading threat. In fact, just a week prior to that, people were criticizing Malacañang for deciding to respond to Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa’s United States (US) visa being cancelled instead. President Rodrigo Duterte swiftly responded to Dela Rosa’s case and threatened to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement—a deal struck between two countries that contains the terms and conditions that a foreign country is allowed to operate under when sending military and civilian personnel to another country.
Though lawmakers have since urged Duterte to reconsider his position on the VFA, it begs the question of why the administration would go through such an undertaking when the public was scrambling for a response on the developing worldwide outbreak.
Before any case was confirmed in the Philippines, Duterte said that there was no need to issue a travel ban, emphasizing that doing so is “not fair” to China. The Department of Health (DOH) was also not inclined to recommend a ban just yet. Yet a day after the first confirmed case, Duterte finally decided to impose a travel ban on people flying in from the Hubei province of China. Right before the first death was reported, Duterte expanded the travel ban to cover anyone from China, Hong Kong, and Macau, excluding Filipinos and holders of permanent resident visas.
Though it seems reasonable to impose a ban after a case was confirmed, it would have also been safer to act preemptively and restrict inbound travel as early as possible. Countries like Indonesia and New Zealand, both of whom have yet to report a confirmed case within their borders, have either denied entry or outright banned flights from mainland China. It is also important to note that, based on tourist arrival statistics from the Department of Trade and Industry, China is the second top source country for tourists that visit the Philippines, a factor that only further heightens the risk. Perhaps in acknowledgment of that fact, the Bureau of Immigration had suspended issuing visas upon arrival for Chinese nationals last January 28.
But ahead of the travel bans imposed by the government, local authorities and some schools took it upon themselves to implement their own preventive measures. In Cebu City, all passengers from China were required to have a 14-day quarantine period, while some Chinese schools in Manila opted to suspend classes without any directive from the government. Other private institutions, including DLSU, have imposed their own travel restrictions and self-quarantine measures.
Yet even after the confirmed cases, the government’s response seems to have not hastened. Duterte held a closed-door meeting with Cabinet officials and a representative from the World Health Organization (WHO) last week, but this took place three days after the first case in the Philippines was reported. Meanwhile, lawmakers held a hearing on the virus a day later, during which lapses within DOH were highlighted by Health Secretary Francisco Duque III himself.
This is not to say that all of the government’s efforts have been flawed. DOH, who has worked closely with WHO, has been proactive in providing timely updates on the outbreak, monitoring the situation even when only 44 cases were confirmed in China of, at the time, a yet-to-be discovered new strain of coronavirus. After days’ worth of delays were encountered in testing cases abroad, the the department is now able to conduct confirmatory testing after acquiring the RNA primer specific for the new strain, slashing the waiting time by half.
Despite this, the issue still lies in the swiftness in creating and implementing policies, and the clarity at which the government informs its constituents of developments. It is important that people are reassured and informed of what is happening, especially now when people are afraid of an unfamiliar disease that has already claimed hundreds of lives.
The year 2020 has barely begun, but recent events have shown that we still have a long way to go.