MANILA - High-income households have stocked up on food and other necessities while poor families were left at the mercy of promised government relief, as the Philippines rushed to contain the fast-spreading coronavirus by imposing a month-long quarantine in the entire Luzon island.
At a time when the public is enjoined to practice social distancing, the COVID-19 crisis also brought attention to the deep divide between the poor and the privileged.
Several government officials and their families, for instance, were criticized for having themselves tested despite showing no symptom of the virus.
“Define privilege,” said journalist Nonoy Espina, referring to senators who were to be examined after one of them, Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri, tested positive for COVID-19.
President Rodrigo Duterte and his family had also been tested for possible infection.
Duterte and his former aide, Sen. Christopher "Bong" Go, turned in negative results, a high probability, according to experts, because they were considered “asymptomatic.”
But the 74-year-old president is considered among people most vulnerable to the new coronavirus because of his age and pre-existing medical conditions, a health department spokeswoman said.
The government has unveiled a P27.1-billion stimulus package to cushion the impact of COVID-19 mainly on workers and small businesses.
The labor department also launched a cash-for-work program during the quarantine period, while poor households were told they would receive food packs from local governments and the social welfare department.
But testing for the so-called privileged few has become a hot-button issue given the limited supply of testing kits in the Philippines, where 202 cases have been confirmed, of whom 17 patients died, as of March 18, and many others believed to be still undetected.
The World Health Organization earlier called on countries to test all suspected COVID-19 cases, an appeal dependent on the availability of diagnostic kits.
In the Philippines, health officials had told a Senate inquiry that there were only some 2,000 testing kits available as of early March. China later donated 2,000 units while South Korea brought another 500, with more kits expected to arrive.
Test kits developed by a team of scientists from the University of the Philippines are undergoing field validation and may be rolled out in 2 to 3 weeks, said Dr. Raul Destura, deputy executive director of the Philippine Genome Center.
Still, the number may not be enough with modelling forecasts projecting infection in the country to hit 70,000 to 75,000 cases in the next 3 months if no such intervention as the prevailing Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine is imposed.
One Twitter user asked why senators were being tested even if they were asymptomatic, while another said politicians were “making it a bit too obvious that they are more privileged than the rest of us.”
Infectious diseases specialists earlier clarified that patients showing no symptoms of COVID-19 need not be tested yet and should monitor themselves in home quarantine for 14 days.
“For patients who are asymptomatic and will be tested, the probability that they are positive is really very low and very small,” said Dr. Rontgene Solante, who heads the infectious diseases and tropical medicine section of the government-run San Lazaro Hospital.
In the case of Zubiri, who claimed he was asymptomatic, it was likely that he had mild symptoms when tested, which explained the positive result, the doctor told ANC’s Early Edition.
“It may be very mild or sometimes they won’t recognize it as a symptom.”
The health department has since revised its testing protocol to focus on patients aged 60 and above, and with existing illnesses and severe symptoms.
It will now “prioritize severe and critical patients,” Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvaña, who heads the government’s technical advisory group for COVID-19, tweeted.
Salvaña said he was not in favor of testing people showing no COVID-19 symptoms, “except for healthcare workers who may need to return to work” while the health department “has discretion for critical government officials.”
“This is a trying and dangerous time for humanity. Please cooperate and stay home. Otherwise millions will die,” he said.
Cooperation means observing home quarantine and practicing social distancing if it’s necessary to go out, measures intended to flatten the curve of COVID-19 here.
“The decision point for controlling transmission is not on the result of the test” but on “human behavior,” said Destura.