Economic frontliners have borne the brunt of COVID-19 as the government urged businesses to open up even with vaccine supplies remaining limited.
In Bacolod City, where economic activity is just at 30% of pre-pandemic levels, businesses and workers see vaccination as “the only hope” for economic recovery.
The Bacolod City Emergency Operations Center, as of Tuesday, August 3, reported that 9,809 of its 15,675 COVID-19 patients were 19 to 59 years old. The city recorded 1,464 in the 60-70 age group and 1,180 patients 15 years old and below. At least 245 patients 90 and above were also recorded.
The local government’s data was backed up by the Corazon Locsin Montelibano Memorial Regional Hospital (CLMMRH), a hospital run by the Department of Health (DOH) in this city.
Based on the clinical profile of its COVID-19 patients, the CLMMRH said most cases are within the productive labor demographic. The 21-30 age group accounts for 16.4% of cases, 31-40 group at 20.8%, and the 51-60 group at 18%. Senior citizens between 61 and 70 years old represent 16.9% of cases.
Workers are the hardest hit by the pandemic because “these are the people who need to go out to earn a living; if they don’t go out, they have nothing to eat,” said local business leader Frank Carbon, chief executive officer of the Metro Bacolod Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Only 50% of workers in Bacolod remain in their jobs, Carbon told Rappler.
Due to as much as a 70% slump in sales, companies have had to lay off employees.
The lack of vaccines, a series of lockdowns, closures due to workplace outbreaks, and consumer anxiety have created a perfect economic storm, said Carbon, who is also vice president for the Visayas of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
As a result, business owners don’t spend more than their daily earnings nowadays. While companies used to plan finance projections for up to 10 years, “now, it’s day to day,” Carbon said.
“You have to be a magician to balance [the costs].… It’s very hard,” added the owner of Weesam Express, a shipping company with a scuttled fast craft fleet. Only the roll-on, roll-off vessels that transport mostly cargo continue to operate.
Waiting for vaccines
Carbon said the A4 status of workers, behind medical frontliners or A1, senior citizens or A2, and persons with comorbidities or A3, places them at the “bottom” of the list of vaccination priorities.
“They want us to open up, the essential warriors, expose our workers 18 hours or 16 hours a day, all their waking hours exposed to infection. It’s unfair to our workers. It’s unfair to us also,” he said.
“Then they blame us for bringing COVID-19 home,” Carbon continued, adding that workers should have been prioritized over senior citizens, who were told to stay at home during the pandemic.
“We decided to buy vaccines to protect our workers, but they told us to wait,” he pointed out.
“It’s only now that our employees are being vaccinated,” said the businessman. But there has been “a wide gap” where employees were exposed.
At greater risk, he added, were drivers of taxis, jeepneys, buses, and motorcycles with cabs.
Carbon, however, thanked Bacolod City and Iloilo City officials for helping immunize key private-sector employees.
The Bacolod City government has administered 160,000 doses of various vaccine brands, with a target of fully immunizing 424,995 residents. In mid-July, 18,700 individuals were fully vaccinated.
The DOH in Western Visayas also announced the arrival on Wednesday, August 4, of 15,000 two-dose orders of the Sinovac vaccine and the same number of two-dose Moderna vaccines.
Dr. Julius Drilon, CLMMRH medical center chief, said even when employers initiate preventive measures, workers can still be infected by COVID-19.
He noted that even in their hospital, where there is constant disinfection and strict enforcement of health protocols, personnel have still contracted the virus.
Carbon said the bulk of Bacolod’s workers spend a longer time taking public transportation, which puts them at risk.
According to Drilon, contact tracing has shown that many patients did not contract the virus at their workplace. “It’s because they continue to go to crowded and enclosed places, and do not wear face masks.”
Some, he added, breached mandatory quarantine protocols by going to restaurants and markets.
“The virus will not end if there’s a lack of discipline from everyone,” Drilon warned.
Senior citizens usually contract the virus from family members, in parties and other celebrations, or even mahjong sessions, said Drilon.
City Administrator Em Ang, who is also the Bacolod City Emergency Operations Center executive director, said the local government temporarily shuts down offices, including those of business process outsourcing companies, with every COVID-19 workplace outbreak.
The latest private sector case was Casino Filipino in July, with 81 cases and two deaths, due to no ventilation and close work quarters.
But on Friday, August 6, the Bacolod City Public Information Office also shut down as 14 employees tested positive for COVID-19 over three days. All of them are asymptomatic and staying in isolation centers, a PIO source said.
The A4 group comprises private-sector workers who need to be physically present in their workplace; government employees; informal sector workers; self-employed individuals who work outside their homes; and those working in private households.
Ang said Bacolod can no longer afford another citywide lockdown and will just focus on granular barangay lockdowns.
The city government has tightened borders to slow down the spread of the virus from neighboring provinces amid the threat of the Delta variant, which is already present in Western Visayas.
Ang said they are already preparing measures in case of a COVID-19 surge which could overwhelm medical workers. Bacolod is also accelerating its vaccination program. – with a report from Inday Espina-Varona/Rappler.com