November 9, 2022
MANILA – Let’s face it, we are tired of COVID-19. For most nations around the world, pandemic fatigue has set in and people just want to get on with their lives, minus the many restrictions of the pandemic. The Philippines is no different, and Executive Order No. 07 making mask-wearing optional for almost all situations and locations is definitely a welcome development for many of us. Yet we cannot deny that the public health threat of COVID-19 remains at the back of our minds. It is for this reason that most people, including many health care experts, are still wary about removing their masks.
How then can we finally eliminate COVID-19 as a public health threat not only as one nation but as one world?
A “Multinational Delphi Consensus” study published in the journal Nature last Nov. 3, 2022, aimed to answer this question. And not surprising at all is that the top recommendations almost unanimously arrived at are those that we already learned after almost three years of living through the pandemic. Even better to note is that most of the solutions are doable and within reach in the context of our current government.
The number one recommendation was that pandemic preparedness and response planning should adopt a “whole-of-society” approach that includes various disciplines, industries, businesses, civil society, etc. I don’t think anyone can argue against this recommendation. This “whole-of-government”/“whole-of-society” concept is at the very core of our Universal Health Care Act. Among the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the private and government sectors worked together in a way that was unprecedented. It also showed us that there is so much we can achieve through this collaboration. Without this public/private partnership to navigate unchartered waters, there would have been more deaths and more misery.
Another important element is effective communication. What good are data and messages if these cannot be understood by the ordinary citizen? To quote directly from the study, “Public health professionals and authorities should combat false information proactively based on clear, direct, culturally responsive messaging that is free of unnecessary scientific jargon.” Indeed, public health authorities and experts should collaborate with community leaders, including barangay health workers and even traditional healers, to build trust through preferred and understandable means of communication that may differ depending on the population being addressed. And if collaboration with community leaders is effective, then this also translates to better prevention, treatment, and care.
But for prevention and adequate care to be possible, we also need to address preexisting inequities, whether these be social, regional, or international inequities that exist between developed and developing nations. Hence, “global trade and health organizations should coordinate with countries to negotiate the transfer of technologies, enabling manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries to develop quality assured and affordable vaccines, tests, and therapeutics.” Developed nations need to take this seriously. And we need to strive to make this a reality.
The above is a brief snapshot of the top recommendations arrived at from this Delphi Study. And I am happy to note that many of the steps taken by the current administration are along these lines. Maintaining the interagency task force to help in crafting policies for COVID-19, and the creation of the Private Sector Advisory Council that has allowed those of us in the private sector to actively collaborate with the government in almost all aspects of society, are examples of effective “whole-of-society” approaches. The plans to manufacture vaccines in our country, the thrust on improving and integrating our country’s information technology system so that virtual medicine can be made widely available and health care delivery can be more efficient, and the steps being taken to proceed with the implementation of our Universal Health Care Act after this was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic; all bode well for us despite the fact that the world is in a perilous state.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, with its many variants and permutations, is here to stay. And while we need to live with COVID, it need not remain a threat to public health. If we take to heart the lessons the pandemic has taught us and put them into practice, not just for COVID but for all aspects of health care, then we will be on the right track.
Dr. Ma. Dominga “Minguita” B. Padilla is an active consultant at the St. Luke’s Medical Center, Global City. A health advocate for many years, she is a technical adviser of the DOH-PODTP; was a spokesperson of the University of the Philippines UHC Study Group from 2017 until the passage into law of the UHC Act in 2019; and head executive staff of PhilHealth from 2015 to 2016. She is likewise the founding president of the Eye Bank Foundation of the Philippines.