IT was December 2019 when Wuhan health authorities first began noticing the rising incidence of some sort of influenza sweeping across the city. And it was no ordinary influenza; the disease was spreading fast and was fatal for some, particularly the old and unwell and those with compromised systems.
By early January it was even much bigger, and Beijing had been alerted. Before the month was over China had to take the unprecedented measure of shutting down access to and from Wuhan and neighboring cities, affecting over 30 million people. Connections to the world via air travel was gone. And the virus had spread outside of China.
Countries like Japan, Australia, the United States and Singapore began reporting cases of the novel coronavirus, as it was first known. China in the meantime began reporting not only infected individuals in the thousands, but also a growing number of fatalities. Unlike previous epidemics (SARA, H1N1 and even the Middle East Respiratory coronavirus), this was far more infectious.
The numbers of the infected, and even of the dying, started to grow.
At first the deaths were only in China. Then Hong Kong reported a death. Then the Philippines. Then Japan and the United States. Infections continued to rise. The World Health Organization sounded the alarm.
For a country that is not only in close geographic proximity to China but counts the Chinese from the mainland as among its largest number of visitors based on nationality, the Philippines swung into action quite late. In the beginning the government was hesitant to stop all flights to and from the Mainland; the Health secretary was quoted as saying that there were diplomatic and political considerations that had to be acknowledged. In effect, he was saying “we will take the risk of letting carriers of the virus into our country because we can’t afford to anger our neighbor.”
When it finally acted, the government banned flights to and from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. But it was too little, too late: China had already sealed off Wuhan about two weeks earlier. In the meantime the health authorities were reporting first a suspected carrier who died of HIV- related issues — but could his demise not have been hastened by the virus? And then a second one, a lady who had flown in from Wuhan directly to Cebu.
And then a third, a male companion of the Wuhan lady, who eventually died of the disease.
The government also began announcing taking note of a couple hundred of “persons under investigation,” meaning potential disease carriers who may have been connected in one way or the other with the two (three?) confirmed cases.
When netizens began sharing a video showing Singapore’s prime minister addressing his nation, the Philippine President followed suit.
I think this experience so far with the COVID-19 outbreak reveals how unprepared we were – and are – for this situation. For example: It takes days before a suspected case can be confirmed, or cleared. Tracking of fellow passengers of the confirmed cases was taking a long time. And even now that many airports have instituted the need to let passengers fill out information sheets, the one I had to fill out in Tacloban upon my arrival did not ask me where I was going or where in the city I was going to stay.
Heck, the DOH even used a spare curtain as a table top for a press conference!
Two things that the government could have done and could still do to professionalize its public information effort on the virus: First, it should tap PTV4, the government network, and use the network for regular (maybe twice a day) bulletins on the progress in the effort to contain the virus in the Philippines. As a consequence it might breathe new life into PTV4 as some sort of our version of PBS in the United States – a network for non-commercial broadcasts and real (not fake) news.
Second, the Government should convene an advisory panel of the ASEAN embassies plus China, Japan and Korea to ensure the flow of information from one country to the other is smooth and uninterrupted, especially with regard to matters pertaining to efforts to contain the virus. These too can be shared over PTV4 during the broadcasts; more importantly the coordination would go a long way in making sure the virus doesn’t find back doors to move from one country to the other. For example: some try to go around the travel ban by flying to a third country and catching a flight home.
That is a risky proposition for us as well as for the third country.
I regularly watch TV for updates on the virus. But guess what: I don’t tune in to local TV; rather, I tune in to Channel News Asia which is based in Singapore.
Speaking of Singapore, if the number of confirmed cases is to be our guide then that city-state is in far bigger trouble with this virus than we are. But if what we use as our guide to how well a country is handling the outbreak is the way a government communicates to its people then it seems Singapore would have licked this one long before we are even able to confirm whether this PUI is a case of COVID-19 or not.
We could — heck, we should! — be doing better.