Since the start of the community quarantine, many have referred to the health workers helping treat COVID-19 patients as “frontliners.” The term tugs at the emotions and signals an appreciation for the difficult work they do in helping fight the deadly virus. After all, we are at “war” with the virus, and the health workers are firing away with every weapon in their professional arsenals to keep as many infected patients alive as they can.
After a month and a half of quarantine, the Department of Health (DoH) reported that 33 health workers had died from COVID-19. Those are deaths among the very people whom we need to help us fight the disease for the long term. Based on overall DoH statistics and the number of health workers in the country as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018 of about 187,000, the proportion of health workers who have died from COVID-19 is more than 30 times higher than the proportion for the general population!
When we neglect quarantine rules, we run the risk of exposure to the virus from people with different amounts of the virus in their bodies. Unfortunately, health workers tend to be around a higher number of infected people who are very sick, therefore, have much higher amounts of the virus. They also tend to face this risk over a prolonged period of time. Therefore, the higher proportion of COVID-19 deaths among health workers is a sad but not surprising result.
We have to set aside the idea that health workers are the frontliners against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
We ourselves are the frontliners in this war. The virus attacks our bodies directly, and we have the primary role of defending against it. If we do not properly defend ourselves, say, by recklessly ignoring public health safety rules or generally not keeping informed of how to avoid infection, then we risk not only killing ourselves but also exposing stressed and overworked health workers to concentrated amounts of the virus. Putting health workers at risk because of our own recklessness is almost like pointing a loaded gun at them. We are causing unconscionable harm to the other people who badly need their services.
If we accept that we are the frontliners in this war, we have the duty to know the enemy. We have the responsibility, with the help of the government, to arm ourselves with scientific knowledge about how the virus attacks us and how we can defend ourselves. I welcome the fact that more people are interested in the basics of hygiene today, whether it involves coughing, sneezing, or proper hand-washing. The DoH video on how to fight COVID-19 found in this link — https://youtu.be/LrxTuj1SsEw — is excellent.
We also need to know how the virus works inside the body as it attacks our lung cells and uses these cells to reproduce and spread itself. We need to understand how this can eventually lead to pneumonia and eventual death as our virus-damaged lungs completely fail to provide oxygen to our bodies. As a layman, I find the explanation of how the SARS-Cov 2 virus spreads and works as explained by the physician assistant Zachary Murphy in this link — https://youtu.be/YRfwZcLeOm4 — to be very helpful.
Some countries have already started lifting their quarantines and have opened business and social establishments. Many Filipinos were hoping that our own lockdown would really be lifted by May 15. (Since this column was written, many parts of the country were placed under a less stringent general community quarantine, while Metro Manila, Bataan, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Zambales, Angeles City, and Laguna were placed under modified community quarantine as of Saturday. Cebu City and Mandaue City are under the stringent enhanced community quarantine. — Ed.). Such a move by the government must be based on very good scientific data on the prevalence of COVID-19. I worry that our testing program remains very limited.
But my biggest worry is that the average Filipino does not have a scientific grasp of how the virus spreads and damages the body. I hope that the government intensifies its public education program on this. Vietnam’s hand-washing pop songs and aggressive testing have helped it achieve zero deaths and one of the lowest numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The coronavirus is damaging not just human bodies, but also people’s mental health, livelihoods, communities, governance systems, economies, and even international relations. So we also need to learn from social science experts on psychology, sociology, economics, political science, and international relations. The problem is that experts in these fields do not integrate their work in ways that give a holistic picture to citizens.
In the United States, for example, competing experts have framed the question of lifting lockdowns in terms of health vs. the economy when clearly, an approach that enhances both in a dynamic and mutually supporting way is required. This polarization has led to a confusing patchwork approach across the different states and, in some cases, disruptive protests.
The Philippine government and the private sector need a plan that integrates the health and social protection of the vulnerable as we all begin to engage the economy after the lockdown. Based on the best scientific knowledge available, we will have to do our part in vigorously defending our bodies from this invisible threat as we rebuild our lives and the economy together.
Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is the Jose E. Cuisia Professor of Business Ethics at De La Salle University.