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Mass testing, again

“If the Health department were to miraculously achieve by tomorrow its daily target of doing 30,000 tests a day, it would take at least about a month and a half to reach government’s minimum target.

Nick V. Quijano Jr.

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Did government this week abdicate its responsibility on mass testing?

It did seem so after presidential spokesman Harry Roque admitted Monday that the Duterte government has no plans yet to conduct mass testing and that it would leave such efforts in the hands of the private sector.

While many praised Mr. Roque’s candor about government’s inability, for various reasons, to do mass testing, his remarks did not sit well.

Not least among those who vehemently objected to Roque’s remarks were mass testing advocates who insist that the only viable strategy left in the fight against the pandemic is testing, tracing and treatment.

With government renouncing mass testing, it now meant government had nothing left in its arsenal against the pandemic except lockdowns. Critics of lockdowns point out lockdowns without the accompanying testing, tracing and treatment achieves nothing, seen more as some sort of blunt force trauma inflicted on people and the economy.

If lockdowns achieved anything, it was a strategy for allegedly “hiding the sorry state of the health system and as a convenient cover for leaders to consolidate authoritarian rule.”

Realizing the dire implications of his remarks, Roque literally walked backed his remarks on Tuesday, saying his remarks were “taken out of context” as he stressed that government is intent on “expanded targeted testing.”

But, without him realizing it, Roque clarifying that “more testing is better” had in fact forced him to hand mass testing advocates a victory.

Roque, if I am not mistaken, is the first high profile Duterte official to directly say the government is for mass testing and to reveal exactly the number of tests government is aiming for.

Previously, the Health department was vague — it still is — about mass testing, not clearly spelling out any testing strategy, much less having a specific target number of necessary tests.

Roque, however, said Tuesday: “Right now we are trying to follow the footsteps of South Korea and right now the goal is to test 1.5 to two percent of the total population.” This means government is targeting roughly 1,650,000 to 2,200,000 people for tests out of the country’s 110 million population.

How long before government achieves the target numbers? A long ways to go. On Tuesday, Mr. Duterte in his weekly report to Congress said only 0.17 percent of the population had been tested since the pandemic started some four months ago.

If the Health department were to miraculously achieve by tomorrow its daily target of doing 30,000 tests a day, it would take at least about a month and a half to reach government’s minimum target.

As all this was going on, Roque and the Health department also took pains to take issue with the term “mass testing,” saying the term is misleading.

The Health department says they “are trying to veer away from this term of ‘mass testing’ because when you say mass testing, it is indiscriminate testing, which is not the case [for us].”

This is a misrepresentation. Of course mass testing isn’t indiscriminate testing nor is it going to be on the scale on what China proposes to do in Wuhan, to test 11 million people. That is beyond the reach of our present meager resources.

Instead, what is being demanded, as far as I can tell, is that enough tests should be done to gather enough data where anyone can comfortably estimate if the pandemic curve is flattening or not.

In fact, Social Weather Stations’ Mahar Mangahas argues that government need not even do large tests but only random tests done like the familiar preelection survey. If preelection surveys can correctly predict winners, why then can’t this be done with the pandemic?

The Health department’s inordinate focus too on “clinical testing” also shows the agency refuses to think outside of the box. “Clinical testing” is only AFTER the fact of infection. It does not tell us anything about the BEFORE of infection.

At any rate, all these now bring us to the other issue of leaving mass testing in the hands of the private sector. The question comes on the heels of the question whether or not employers are required to give COVID-19 tests to their employers before returning to work.

Government says employers are not required to test employees. At the same time, however, it encourages the private sector to do tests if tests make them comfortable.

Government, however, did not give any indication of its thoughts on the flip side of the issue — who was going to pay for all the tests?

If we are to go by the statements of alleged quarantine protocol violator Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, it seems government won’t be paying.

Pimentel insists that nowhere in the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act forces government to spend for mass testing. “There is no provision in the (law) which makes mass testing mandatory or makes the expenses for testing a charge on government funds,” Pimentel told a newspaper.

Whether Mr. Duterte seriously takes up Mr. Pimentel’s view remains to be seen.

Anyway, whatever happens, the private sector, particularly rich corporations, are going ahead mass testing their employees, in the hope that tests allow them to safely reopen their businesses.

“We cannot hide from the virus forever. It will take a while before we have a vaccine. And we have guidelines, the Department of Health has guidelines, the Department of Labor and Employment has guidelines on how to go back to work,” says Dr. Minguita Padilla of Project Antibody Rapid Test Kit (ARK), a private sector effort to test private sector workers.

Project ARK already bought 500,000 antibody rapid test kits. The kits are to be used by Project ARK’s 205 partner companies for screening their respective employees. Project ARK aims to do 30,000 tests a day in 45 days, and hopefully in the next three months attain 50,000 tests daily.

Ramping up tests on private sector employees is also an implicit acknowledgement “that if government could not test asymptomatic Filipinos yet, the private sector will help out by conducting rapid antibody testing among its employees.”

“If you use it the right way, you will be able to catch the people who are a threat to society,” Padilla says.

The asymptomatic threat cannot be taken lightly. Cebu City officials this week revealed that 95 percent of its COVID-19 patients showed no symptoms of the disease.

Anyway, while rapid tests seem all well and good for business, there are hidden costs for both the economy and government itself.

Rich businesses which can procure and do rapid tests on employees won’t have much of a problem. But small businesses or those struggling with massive losses from the lockdown do.

A reaction sums up the issue: “The government has required the private sector to pay for the testing of employees with COVID-19 symptoms, but business groups are worried this might be a burden on small companies some of whom might rather opt to remain closed than pay too high a cost.”

In short, the economy is not only about big corporations but also about scores of small businesses.

With this, we now turn to government itself. Government is the country’s largest employer.

What then is government going to do with its thousands of employees, who sooner or later will be trooping back to their offices? Will government do similar rapid tests on government workers?

Not testing government workers, in my opinion, will make any private sector testing initiative useless. The private sector employee does not exist in a vacuum. The private sector worker can’t avoid interacting, either personally or professionally, with a government worker. What then?

Email: nevqjr@yahoo.com.ph

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