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PH seeks help of Chinese experts to aid coronavirus response

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – A group of Chinese doctors and public health experts may soon arrive in the Philippines to help the country to respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak, Manila's ambassador to Beijing said on Monday, March 30.

Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta Romana said details on when the medical team might land, as well as who would be part of it, were currently part of measures being discussed. 

"Sa ngayon kasali na yan sa plano…Mayroong medical team na hinahanda papupunta diyan para tumulong sa atin…. Talks are underway to have them go to the Philippines shortly," Sta Romana said during government's Laging Handa briefing. 

(That’s part of the plan…There is a medical that is being prepared to go there [Philippines] to help us…. Talks are underway to have them go to the Philippines shortly.) 

The Chinese embassy said Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian assured Health Secretary Francisco Duque III over a phone call on Monday, that China would send a medical expert team to the Philippines. 

The team is expected to provide Philippine health officials technical advice on “epidemic prevention” and their experience in treating coronavirus patients, the embassy said. 

Huang told Duque the Chinese embassy would coordinate with the Department of Health on arrangements needed for the team of experts. Duque, the embassy said, likewise “pledged” the health department would “actively coordinate” with the embassy to “make sure the work of the medical expert team goes smoothly.”

What to expect: Sta Romana explained to Rappler the prospective team includes Chinese doctors and public health experts who will share their experiences in dealing with the novel coronavirus disease.

The doctors and experts, he added, will likely come from Fujian province, where over 300 coronavirus cases were found and only one death occured as of Monday. 

The group will likewise exchange insights with Filipino doctors and experts in addressing the coronavirus epidemic. Chinese doctors will serve more as an advisory panel, and will not practice medicine nor treat patients in the Philippines, Sta Romana said. 

There was no definite schedule for their arrival yet. 

What health officials say: Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire welcomed the idea of Chinese doctors and experts lending their insights to the Philippines. 

She denied reports the DOH was blocking the entry of Chinese doctors, saying it was the department itself which requested Chinese experts come to the Philippines and share advice. 

"Gusto natin mashare nila ang kanilang expertise because nakita po natin na ang bansa nila ay nagkaroon po ng pagtigil ng matataas na kaso at pagtigil ng matataas na pagkakamatay. So gusto natin matuto galing sa kanilang bansa," Vergeire said. 

(We want them to share their experience because we saw their country was able to stop the increase in cases and deaths. So we want to learn from them.) 

Why this matters. With the decreasing number of infections in China, ground zero for the novel coronavirus outbreak, the country has started to shift towards providing aid to other countries affected by the virulent disease. 

Assistance takes shape in the form of supplies and doctors being flown to hard hit areas such as Italy, to shared practices in combating the virus and treating infected patients. 

Top doctors from China have likewise been sharing lessons learned from handling the coronavirus outbreak – emphasizing the proper training of doctors, increasing testing capacity, and ensuring health workers are adequately protected. 

Some observers have viewed China's efforts as a way to deflect criticism over its early handling of coronavirus cases – where a lack of transparency lead to delays in early response crucial to the containing the outbreak. (READ: Mask diplomacy: China tries to rewrite virus narrative)

To the Philippines, China earlier donated 100,000 testing kits, 10,000 N95 masks, 10,000 personal protective equipment sets, and 100,000 surgical masks. 

Other assistance: While having a team of medical experts flown into the Philippines remains in the works, Sta Romana said the airlifting of medical supplies from China is ongoing.

This, he said, was being facilitated by private groups and Filipino-Chinese, who purchased and arranged to have supplies from China flown into the Philippines. 

Sta Romana said there has been no Filipino infected by the coronavirus in mainland China. 

The Philippines listed at least 1,418 coronavirus cases as of Sunday, March 29. The confirmed cases included 71 deaths and 42 recoveries. – Rappler.com 

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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