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In the midst of challenges

It has been a hectic two weeks as Kaisa Para Sa Kaunlaran continues relief operations for victims of Taal Volcano’s eruption and unexpectedly found itself helping in the fight against the spread of COVID-19, the name for the virus previously referred to as 2019-nCoV.
Amidst difficulties and challenges, it is heartwarming that Kaisa continues to get generous support from donors so it can carry on with its work.
First hour, Kaisa, through the Amity Club, was able to donate face masks to the Intramuros Administration, Manila City Hall, Manila’s traffic enforcers and visitors to Bahay Tsinoy museum. The masks had to be procured in Tarlac because of the shortage in Manila.
Following that, the Ang Family Association (Lioc Kui Fraternity) pared down its anniversary celebration and donated the savings, plus additional amounts from its directors, to Kaisa. Half of the amount went to relief operations in the Philippines and the other half to our partner, the Amity Foundation based in Nanjing, to procure medical supplies for small hospitals in China dealing with COVID-19.
COVID-19 assistance
Our volunteers were on the road to Tagaytay with relief goods when Dr. Anna Ong-Lim, president of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, called. She said there was a serious lack of interpreters to help hospitals and doctors communicate with Chinese patients. Health workers needed to convince persons under investigation (PUI) to be swabbed for laboratory examination and be confined if found symptomatic.
In response, Kaisa immediately offered the phone numbers of two members that hospitals and doctors can call when they need interpreters.
Lim also said the Tsinoy community should have been the first to allay fears and calm people down. Instead, she lamented, it added to the panic when Binondo schools canceled classes, the only ones in the country to do so.
I explained to Lim that parents asked for the cancellations, knowing that many Chinese students had gone back to China for the Chinese New Year break. Unfortunately, some parents in one school lied when asked if their families had been to China. Hence, the schools found it more prudent to cancel classes for two weeks as a form of self-quarantine for students, teachers and parents who traveled to China during the break.
Other problems included the lack of masks and difficulty in procuring them. Due to a communication barrier, and to the panic and hysteria, the Department of Health found it difficult to convince people that only those who are sick or exposed to symptomatic patients and health workers need to wear masks.
The general population needs to be educated that wearing masks can be counterproductive. People generally don’t know how to wear them properly, care for them, dispose of them after eight hours and to refrain from adjusting them frequently or putting them on and off.
The discussion resulted in a forum the next day, convened by the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc., where Health Undersecretary Eric Domingo and Lim spoke with representatives of Chinese and Tsinoy organizations. It received wide media coverage and I was able to ask mainstream media to let me address their listeners in Chinese. I learned that many Chinese listen to morning news broadcasts to practice Filipino.
Disaster unpreparedness
The myriad problems encountered by the public, health workers and different government agencies highlight how unprepared we are in the fight against the menace. We are lucky so far that the COVID-19 has not become pandemic and containment measures seem to be working.
The quarantine protocols have been left to hospitals to implement, and each hospital has improvised its own rules. However, we had hospitals that refused to admit symptomatic patients for fear that news that there is a PUI would reduce their admission rate.
Then there’s a hospital that insisted on confining an asymptomatic patient just because she is from China. She had been in the Philippines for 14 days and gone to the hospital to have herself checked because of a slight cough.
Even after her attending physician cleared her on the third day, when her cough was gone, the hospital refused to discharge her because it had to wait for results of her swab from the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine in Muntinlupa.
She was kept in hospital eight days until Kaisa intervened and informed the hospital that the confinement was causing severe depression in the patient. She was confined in a windowless room that had no shower, and it was difficult even to ask for something as simple as hot drinking water. Her isolation also meant she could see no one, not even friends.
Another serious problem that confronted our health authorities is the lack of public crematoriums. It is shocking to know that even with the sharp increase in the number of patients who have died of HIV, the government does not have a functioning crematorium.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III diverted attention away from his own inability to solve the problem by blaming private Chinese-owned crematoriums for refusing to cremate the patient who died of COVID-19.
Travel ban
The government’s unpreparedness is most visible in the confusion over the imposition of a travel ban without consultation and prior notice.
It is obvious government agencies – the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Tourism and Health, the Bureau of Immigration, airport authorities – and the airlines didn’t consult one another and discuss the wisdom of imposing a travel ban and how to implement it.
The announcement was made and the ban effected within the hour. Cathay Pacific Airways, with a plane carrying 272 passengers (mostly Filipinos) from New York who transited through Hong Kong, was sent back because of the sudden travel ban.
Passengers on other airlines that flew from China to Manila were stuck at the airport for 48 hours because no one knew what to do with them.
They were barred entry to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, but Philippine planes could not fly back to China because of the travel ban.
The Chinese passengers had to wait for a plane from China to ferry them back. After two days, Filipinos were allowed entry but had to go through self-quarantine.
Taiwan was not included initially in the travel ban, only China, Hong Kong and Macau. But on Feb. 11, Taiwan was suddenly included.
Nearly 100 overseas Filipino workers bound for Taiwan to return to work or fulfill new contracts were stranded at the airport without a plane to bring them to Taiwan.
A plane from San Francisco, which transited through Taoyuan Airport, was turned back, even though passengers did not leave the airport; 88 of them were actually Filipino balikbayans with US passports.
Bedlam and confusion. The poor airport authorities didn’t know how to deal with the problem since directives were not clear. A friend in Hong Kong who needed to come home decided to fly from Hong Kong to Singapore then to Manila to circumvent the ban. Two days later, the government lifted the Taiwan ban.
It is time the government sat down to draw up a comprehensive disaster plan for health emergencies. Likewise, it is shocking to know the government still has no permanent relocation plan for residents living on Volcano Island, even though it has been declared a permanent danger zone for several decades. We are capable of planning, then executing a good plan. We have the talent and brainpower to do so. And we should.
Our country deserves nothing less.