The worst is yet to come?

A HEALTH WORKER at St. Luke’s in Quezon City gestures in a photo taken Aug. 10. St. Luke’s Hospital posted on social media that the emergency rooms at its branches in Quezon City and Global City, Taguig were fully occupied with people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS

Just as our economy was showing signs of recovery, with GDP growing 11.8% in the second quarter, COVID’s Delta variant started hitting us hard. As of Aug. 10, the total number of active COVID-19 cases nationwide was over 79,000. Just a month before, July 10, we were at around 49,000 cases. The big rise in numbers seems linked to the highly transmissible Delta variant.

The last time we were in this situation was during the March-April 2021 “surge.” On April 25, the government reported over 77,000 active cases nationwide. The peak was actually over 203,000 cases, as reported on April 17. But, given the rate of increase in the last 30 days or so, we may hit 200,000 yet again. It may just be a matter of time.

Hospitals are getting full, again. Even field hospitals put up by the Philippine National Red Cross to temporarily boost bed capacity, are overflowing. And the Philippine General Hospital has reported more pediatric cases, with younger children getting sick with COVID. And while the ECQ lever was pulled for the fourth time on Aug. 6, we may not see any positive effect maybe until a month from now. ECQ1 was in March 2020, ECQ2 in August 2020, and ECQ3 in late March 2021.

Take the case of Makati City, where I reside. During the March-April 2021 “surge,” the number of active cases climbed from 435 on March 1 to peak at 1,544 by April 22. This was despite imposing the third ECQ (enhanced community quarantine, the strictest quarantine level) or ECQ3 starting March 29, and then shifting to MECQ (modified enhanced community quarantine, the 2nd strictest level) by April 16. From April 23, cases began to slide down very slowly, hitting a low of 419 by July 11. At that point, the March-April 2021 surge could be deemed over.

Note that the peak of 1,544 was hit 25 days from the start of ECQ3 on March 9. Then, it took another four weeks of MECQ, and seven weeks of GCQ (general community quarantine, the third of four quarantine levels) — with restrictions — before the numbers dropped to 419 on July 11, lower than 435 reported on March 1. In short, it took almost 15 weeks or almost four months for the numbers to drop back to the more manageable 400-level.

Since then, however, Makati City cases have been climbing again. From 419 on July 11, Makati City reported 1,477 active COVID cases as of Aug. 10. More than 1,000 cases were added in a month’s time or an average of 33 cases daily. The fourth ECQ or ECQ4 started on Aug. 6. At this rate, the previous peak of 1,544 cases will surely be topped soon. We are just 67 cases short of that at this point.

But while the city survived a peak of 1,544 cases previously, it remains uncertain whether it can still manage with numbers hitting 1,600 active cases or more. We are just on the sixth day of ECQ4 today, and with vaccines seemingly not as effective in keeping Delta at bay compared to other variants, I fear that Makati might peak at anywhere between 2,100 to 2,500 active cases by early September.

And going by our experience with ECQ3, the numbers will slide down very slowly. Perhaps by December, we can expect them to drop back to the more manageable 400-level. Best case scenario is around 200 active cases by Christmas time. But, seeing how Delta wreaked havoc in India, Indonesia, and now the United States and other countries, a “managed” pandemic by December will truly be a Christmas “miracle.”

Economics-wise, perhaps 2021 may have to be written off pretty much like 2020, with 2022 being the target year for a more realistic starting line for recovery. The May 2022 elections may yet bring a fresh breeze, and based on a previous research I did, the economy usually starts putting on a good show the year after a presidential election year.

Our healthcare system barely coped when we hit 7,000 new cases nationwide daily in August 2020, when we imposed ECQ2. Then we hit an average of about 15,000 cases daily in April 2021, overwhelming our hospitals. On Aug. 10, we recorded 8,560 new cases. Over 11,000 cases reported on Aug. 7, and over 10,000 cases on Aug. 6, a major jump from only 3,600 new cases on July 13. Are we going to hit 15,000-level again? Most likely. We may even go higher.

I fear that the worst is yet to come. While I hope to be proved wrong, and that the light of the end of the tunnel is actually already in sight, I already anticipate this not to be the case. As we grapple with this new “surge,” we are using the same tools we used during ECQ1 in March 2020, ECQ2 in August 2020, and ECQ3 in March 2021. So, after Aug. 20, I am already expecting another two weeks of ECQ or perhaps a month of MECQ, and then two months or longer of GCQ with restrictions.

Just note that with these tools, it took us about four months for the cases numbers to come down to manageable levels during ECQ3. With no new tools to use, and despite the continuous vaccination of individuals, I still expect a similar timeline for “recovery” if not longer this time around. Again, everything depends on when this new “surge” will peak, and it doesn’t seem we have reached that point yet.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council

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