The original sin of 2020


    THE number of infections has breached a million, the number of deaths has reached 64,000 although recoveries are almost 250,00 worldwide. What began as a curious new strain of the coronavirus has now brought the world to a halt and has left doctors and scientists as well as politicians and economists reeling as they try to take control of the situation.

    There are accusations that China has not been as forthright about the virus, although official records show that the first report of a case linked to this virus happened on December 8, and by the end of that month China had already alerted the World Health Organization to the health issue. If you think about it, any country that confronts a new virus from the same family as the flu, which provokes (in its initial stages) almost the same symptoms as the flu, would most probably react the way China reacted. But a month later, when human to human transmission had been confirmed and reported by China to the world, things began to change. And as human to human transmission became more common, the pace picked up in a manner never seen in maybe a hundred years.

    A childhood friend who is a doctor now in America and is battling COVID on the frontlines was communicating with me yesterday via Viber. Is COVID really that infectious, I asked, after she mentioned that she wears extra layers of PPE when dealing with a COVID patient. “Yes, really,” her reply went. “As what the stats have shown, the age group 70 and above are most vulnerable. It’s mind-boggling how fast and fatal the sick ones deteriorate in a matter of hours.”

    So. Given the fact that the virus that was discovered in Wuhan in December of last year was a new one; given that the discovery of human to human transmission came in mid January, about a month later; given that by that time the virus was found to be more infectious than any we have seen in our lifetimes; and given that by the end of January the WHO had sounded it’s first alarm, did we have to be where we are today, globally?

    I think the world failed because it took too long to swing into action. At the very least, a month was wasted when governments in Europe to the United States and even to the Philippines paid scant attention to what was happening in China (and in Singapore and South Korea), with leaders even dismissive of the risks, and even health officials suggesting that drinking lemon tea or something wildly protect you from the virus.

    Most of my years at Coca-Cola were spent as part of that company’s global Incident Management and Crisis Resolution (IMCR) program, one that was revamped and reworked after an incident in Europe in the early 2000s. Part of the program is a robust risk analysis protocol which has seven categories of risks and maybe 70 or more questions one had to answer in evaluating each risk.

    But what I like most about the process is risk evaluation, the search for red flags while they are still issues and before they escalate into a full-blown crises. One key element of this process is evaluating likelihood – can and will an issue happen in your market/area? To answer that, you have to ask yourself: Has something similar happened anytime in the past? Is something similar currently happening somewhere? And by these two questions alone your answer would be a resounding Yes – we had SARS in the past and we have the Wuhan outbreak happening now.

    These two would make the likelihood rating of this happening here in the Philippines as Very High.

    Then you ask yourself: If something like this happens were to happen here, what would the impact be? Again you turn to Wuhan and you see that by Jan. 23-24, the city was being shut down as was Hubei province. People were dying. Hospitals were overwhelmed. These alone would tell you that the impact of this happening here was going to be Critical.

    Finally, you ask yourself: What do we have in place or what can we put in place to mitigate the impact? Do we have test kits? Do we have hospital beds? Do we have stockpiles of necessary supplies be they face masks or PPE or food? Woefully, evaluating our mitigating circumstances would result in a Low if Not Very Low rating.

    All these – Likelihood that was Very High, Impact that was Critical, and Mitigation that was Low or Very Low – should have told us that we were facing a threat of unprecedented magnitude.

    But we were treating it lightly. We were being told we had enough test kits – oh and that we in fact were a “model of containment.”

    Oh, and yes in January our political leadership was focused on ABS-CBN and the Sol Gen and his quo warranto petition.

    Our lack of urgency in preparing for this risk, perhaps because we had a faulty risk assessment, is what I consider our original sin. Now everything we are doing is our way of atoning for that.

    Sadly, no matter what we do, we can never bring back those who have died unnecessarily simply because we failed in preparing.

    And because of this original sin, the “model of containment” is now struggling not to become the “model of contamination.”


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