AN exit strategy from the restraints brought about by Covid-19 is certainly a welcome development. European nations are leading in the withdrawal of defenses against the pandemic after the Omicron variant has proven to be a milder strain of the virus. The Philippines can follow in the footsteps of Europe, with prudence as the guiding principle of the exit plan.
The World Health Organization’s office in Europe last week virtually declared the war against the pandemic in the region over, predicting a “long period of tranquility” after Sweden and Spain joined Britain, Denmark and France in lifting almost all Covid-19 restrictions.
I can only agree with the statement of WHO Europe Director Hans Kluge, who said, “there is a singular opportunity to take control of the transmission.” The Philippines, like other countries, has learned its lessons from the latest Omicron wave. We did not panic and we still kept the economy open. The administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, to its credit, did not resort to widespread lockdowns. Instead, it opted for granular or household lockdowns that zeroed in on the source of the infection and effectively contained the virus spread.
The full reopening of the economy, including the resumption of in-person classes, is the real normal that we want to happen in the Philippines. We as a nation have shown in January that we can live with the virus. A more virulent strain may emerge after Omicron, but we know now how to deal with it. We can always apply granular lockdowns in case of a spike. There is no need to impose strict measures that only disrupt economic activities and our way of life.
I am pleased to learn that the government is slowly loosening Covid-19 restrictions given the declining daily and active cases in the Philippines. Quarantine facilities like hotels are no longer required for our overseas Filipino workers, returning residents and even foreign tourists. Their stay in the Philippines is very much welcome—their spending will drive economic growth—and spur others, especially foreign tourists, to come home and revive the domestic travel sector.
Latest Philippine Covid-19 data support the pandemic exit. Daily cases currently hover around 8,000 from a peak of nearly 40,000 in January, while active cases are down to just above 150,000 as of last Friday, from a peak of about 290,000 on January 17. More importantly, the Omicron variant did not burden our hospitals as many of those infected stayed home to manage the infection. Just 44 percent of ICU beds, 43 percent of isolation beds, 43 percent of ward beds and 24 percent of ventilators were in use nationwide. In Metro Manila, the rate is 37 percent of ICU beds, 32 percent of isolation beds, 36 percent of ward beds and 23 percent of ventilators.
Meanwhile, just exactly how soon we will implement the Covid-19 exit strategy is all up to our health authorities. I believe current Philippine data and developments in other nations point to a regression of the virus from its pandemic nature to an endemic phase—one that we can live with and manage but one that will not go away.
The return to the “new normal,” or Alert Level 1, will depend on how fast Covid-19 cases drop and other data, such as hospitalization rate and an average daily attack rate of below 1. The downgrade to Alert Level 1, of course, is the ideal situation. Commercial establishments under this level can do away with restrictions on their venue capacity. Travel will also be allowed irrespective of age or comorbidities, while maintaining compliance with minimum public health standards.
But first things first, the Philippines must vaccinate as many Filipinos as possible to protect the population from Omicron and other variants that could emerge.
The optimist in me is telling me that the WHO will soon downgrade Covid-19 from pandemic to endemic and classify it, perhaps, like a seasonal flu. But whether Covid-19 becomes an ordinary flu that can be treated at home and without need for hospitalization or not, Filipinos should not lower their guard. The pandemic exit may be near but it is still better to err on the side of caution.