[OPINION] Why do we need an ECQ now?

Later this week, as many other cities around the world have done recently, the NCR will return to a hard ECQ lockdown to control the spread of the Delta variant. In the past few days, I have been asked questions about this strategy.

First, what is the Delta variant? The Delta variant is a version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is the same virus that causes COVID-19. However, the Delta variant of the virus is a changed virus. Most importantly, it is more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain that arrived in the Philippines in early 2020. Calculations suggest that the Delta variant is so transmissible that one person can infect between six to eight other persons at any one time. This has made it comparable in transmissibility with chickenpox. Nonetheless, the minimum health standards, especially wearing a mask, are still effective means to protect people against Delta. 

Why is Delta more transmissible? Studies suggest that patients who are infected with the Delta variant make up to 1,000 times more virus than patients with earlier variants of SARS-CoV-2. If you make more virus in your nose and throat, it is easier for you to give it to others. This would explain why there are confirmed reports of fleeting contact between people. Fifteen seconds in close contact can lead to infection: one person can infect another person simply by walking past that person in a mall! If one person in a household is infected with the Delta variant, it is not uncommon to see the entire household eventually infected within a few days. This is why home isolation and quarantine are not recommended during a Delta surge.  

Why do we need a circuit breaker lockdown? Critics of the approaching ECQ lockdown in the NCR have pointed out that our healthcare utilization rate (HCUR) is still below the critical threshold of 70%. They have wondered why this ECQ is happening now. I have discovered that this is a question that comes up a lot among ordinary Filipinos because the DOH continues to claim that there is no hard evidence for community transmission of the Delta variant in Metro Manila.

Unfortunately, this confusion is a result of poor messaging on the part of the DOH, akin to its claim not so long ago that the Philippines was at “low risk” for the pandemic. Terms like “community transmission” and “low risk” have technical WHO definitions that are not familiar to millions of Filipinos. However, they also have common, ordinary meanings that our kababayans use all the time. For ordinary people, community transmission, as the term itself suggests, is about people infecting other people within a barangay or within an LGU or within the NCR. Using this ordinary meaning, we can infer that community transmission of the Delta variant has already occurred and has been occurring for many weeks now. Why? Because it is the best explanation that accounts for the widespread and seemingly unconnected positive cases of Delta in Metro Manila.

Thus, though the shortcomings and limitations of our contact tracing and genome sequencing have failed to confirm it, ordinary Filipinos have already concluded – rightly so, in my view – that community transmission has occurred. The DOH needs to improve its messaging so that ordinary Filipinos like my relatives and friends do not perceive its claims to be silly, false, or even worse, government lies. 

Why do we need an ECQ? We are still in the early stages of the Delta surge in the NCR. The wave is growing but it has not yet accelerated or exploded. A hard lockdown now will blunt and may even break the Delta surge in at least three ways. 

First, a hard lockdown limits the mobility of people. This starves the virus since it needs new people to grow. Without exposure to new people to infect for two weeks, the virus will die. Thus, a hard lockdown halts pandemic spread by preventing new infections.

Second, a hard lockdown will give the government an opportunity to contact trace all positive patients and to isolate them from their neighbors for the requisite two weeks. This breaks chains of transmission and halts pandemic spread by identifying past infections.

Third, a hard lockdown will give the government time to continue to build population immunity. Four million additional doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have already been allocated to the NCR for the next three weeks. This will allow us to significantly increase the percentage of fully vaccinated persons in Metro Manila by the end of the month. This slows pandemic spread by preventing future infections when the hard lockdown is lifted. 

What does this all mean for our future? I ask this because I have been asked if this ECQ will be followed by ECQ after ECQ after ECQ. Once again, unfortunately, there is confusion because the DOH has recently said that the ECQ will help us “to prepare” for the surge. People have heard this and have been left wondering if this means that we will get a surge once the ECQ is lifted. If this is so, then will we have to go back into ECQ again?

However, if done right, the upcoming ECQ will actually help us “to prevent” a surge like the ones we are witnessing in Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam because it will accomplish the three goals described above. If done right, we can exit the circuit breaker lockdown in the NCR later this month under a different set of circumstances, where spread of the Delta variant is controlled and uncoupled from hospitalizations and death because of growing population immunity. This would allow us, in time, to learn to live alongside COVID-19 in the same way we live alongside the flu. – Rappler.com

Reverend Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP is Visiting Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Santo Tomas, and an Octa Research Fellow.

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