Pandemic preparedness plan pushed 8 years ago

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    Gloria Macapagal Arroyo

    ALMOST eight years ago before the COVID-19 pandemic now gripping the country, or on May 28, 2012, two lawmakers filed a bill in the House of Representatives urging the formulation of a pandemic preparedness plan.

    House Bill No. 6224 (HBN 6224) was authored by then Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her son, former Camarines Sur Rep. Diosdado “Dato” Arroyo.

    This was a counterpart measure to Senate Bill No. 1070 (SBN 1070) filed by then senator Manuel B. Villar.

    When the bill was enrolled at the Bills and Index Division of the House of Representatives, the elder Arroyo was detained without bail at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in connection with an electoral sabotage case filed by the Commission on Elections.

    What prompted the proposal was the outbreak of Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) caused by the H5N1 virus in 2004 to 2007 in several Asian countries. While difficult to transfer from person to person, the World Health Organization said the bird flu virus has a mortality rate of 60 percent for infected humans.

    The bill’s authors called on the government to take steps to protect the people and the economy from “all potential and actual public health emergencies.”

     AHEAD OF ITS TIME

     Villar’s SBN 1070 and the Arroyos’ HBN 6224 anticipated the potential challenges that government will have to face in the event of a widespread infection in the population, including the need to organize health care institutions and health workers to handle big numbers of cases and to assign specified responsibilities to local governments, the armed forces and the national police to control virus transmission.

    For a coordinated response to a national health crisis, Villar and the Arroyos sought the creation of a Pandemic Emergency Council to be headed by the secretary of the Department of Health (DOH), with the assistance of the Department of Interior and Local Government, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation and three representatives from the private health sector.

    The council was tasked to ensure that LGUs and concerned government agencies will set up health care facilities with isolation centers equipped and supplied with sufficient manpower and tools to take on the problem.

    In the event that the first line of state health facilities is unable to cope, the Council was given the power to tap private hospitals and clinics to provide similar services.

    A provision was included imposing restriction on travel and movement of potentially infected persons.

    “If evidence indicates amplified transmission or dispersion of the infection into the wider community, the Council shall be authorized to adapt “social distancing” measures, such as the closing of schools or cancellation of large gatherings,” section 14 of HBN 6224 stated.

    Likewise covered was automatic control by the DOH of the use and rationing of medical supplies and pharmaceutical products that the agency will consider to be crucial in suppressing the pandemic.

    The lawmakers also recommended a mandatory reporting system of the disease on the household and barangay levels and the transmittal of such information to the city and municipal health authorities.

    The same obligation to document and report individual cases was proposed for physicians and hospitals.

    Sadly, neither bill made it past the committee level.

    The following year, the Arroyos re-filed the bill which was assigned as HB No. 3047.

    The late senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago filed the counterpart version in Senate Bill no. 1573

    Again, the proposed measures languished for months until the 16th Congress adjourned.

    On Jan. 30, 2020, seven years and eight months after the filing of HB 6224 and SB 1070, the Philippines reported its first case of COVID-19.

    Since that day, the Philippines has been grappling with widespread local transmission of the novel coronavirus, with Luzon placed under enhanced lockdown, strict home quarantine rules set in place, mass transportation suspended, health care facilities filled with patients, and health care workers overworked and have now also started catching the virus themselves.