“…[T]he most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate. You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected…” – Excerpts from the World Health Organization Director-General’s Opening Remarks at the Media Briefing on COVID-19 (March 16, 2020)

For the past months, the country has been dealing and battling with the COVID-19 health crisis. With more than 22,000 cases nationwide according to the Department of Health, a substantial portion of the population have been seriously affected by the iron-fist implementation of quarantine policies as part of the country’s response to the crisis.

The community quarantine marked by intensified police presence at the borders and checkpoints, who are prepared to grab and arrest the ordinary civilian who allegedly violates so-called “community quarantine” protocols, have become distasteful for many, particularly of the inhumane treatment and degrading punishment that were meted to these alleged “offenders.” Who would ever forget the story of Mang Dodong, a fish vendor who was detained for days for allegedly going out without a quarantine pass; of the relief volunteers who were detained for doing community kitchen to feed their hungry neighbors, whose sources of income and livelihood have been affected by the lockdown? More “lockdown stories” are tear-jerking and heartbreaking enough to trigger the anxiety and fuel the rage we are all feeling at this moment of uncertainty.

Being primarily a health issue, health experts and the public have been calling for mass testing to identify, isolate and treat those who have been infected with the deadly virus, in order to contain the transmission. However, it is appalling to read in the news how our public officials are conveniently passing off the conduct of mass testing to the private sector, as though the issue is not one pressed and imbued with public interest. It is quite disappointing, all the more, to hear the government’s health department and the alter egos of the president trying so hard to use adjectives and nomenclatures in their attempt to deviously skirt around the health issue and cover up for the apparent lack of a systematic and holistic plan to address the pandemic and to cushion its impact on the well-being of the people.

I cannot find the appropriate words to describe how our government is handling the crisis. It is a health issue to begin with. However, the response of the government, noted by its militaristic fashion, appears to be tangential and seemingly unresponsive to the situation. The World Health Organization (WHO) has emphasized on the need for the conduct of “testing, isolation and contact tracing.” The WHO has even identified this as early as March 16, 2020 to be the “backbone of the response” to the pandemic in order to determine who is infected with the virus and effectively prevent the further spread of the contagion. Unfortunately, we cannot get the facts straight as regards the number of tests conducted and the country’s capacity to conduct the tests, since there were conflicting reports even from among our public officials about it. At the end of the day, this keeps us all practically groping in the dark.

To a certain extent, too, I cannot help but feel personally affected with the issue of mass testing. Our family’s grand matriarch joined our Creator on May 8, after falling sick more than two weeks prior. I did not know if the deadly virus was the proximate cause of her demise because she was no longer tested for it. She was dead on arrival at the hospital. But because she had a fever weeks before and because of her advanced age, I was later informed that she was considered as COVID suspect. As a result thereof, she was cremated the following day and treated like any other patients who succumbed to the virus. She went home in her ashes. How to grieve in these times is unimaginable. You cry in front of your cellphone and tablet screens. You do your novena prayers for the dead online via Jitsi or Zoom. But the worse part for me is the fact that I have this lingering question, a question that I know will be left unanswered from here on. Did she get infected with the virus? That I would never know. And how many more have been in this kind of situation?

Now, more than ever, it is best to be reminded that our health is not just our personal concern and priority. It is also the responsibility of the State, pursuant to Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to ensure the recognition and protection of our “right to the highest attainable standard of health.” This necessarily includes our right to “prevention, treatment and control of diseases” and our right to have access to healthcare facilities and services. As elaborated in CESCR General Comment No.14 on the Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health, the right to “prevention, treatment and control of diseases” involves medical care during epidemics and availability of appropriate and relevant technologies and other mechanisms to control the spread of infectious diseases. Meanwhile, our access to healthcare facilities and services includes that for “basic preventive, curative, rehabilitative health services” and “appropriate treatment of prevalent diseases.”

With the pandemic claiming thousands of lives worldwide, we all deserve some certainty amid the chaos and anxiety. This can be achieved if State efforts are geared at and in sync with experts’ recommendation as to what the response against the dreaded virus should be like – and that is “testing, isolation and contact tracing” effectively and efficiently. (davaotoday.com)

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