A post-pandemic to-do list
The New York Times made a survey of more than 800 readers, asking them about the first things they’ll want to do after the pandemic ends. The responses were relatable, sweet, and wistful, a snapshot of diverse individual experiences during quarantine: going on real-life dates, hugging, shaking hands, holding parties, going salsa dancing. Those with autoimmune diseases long for a simple trip to the grocery store; a surgeon who has quarantined himself from his family longs to finally embrace them. These hopes for the post-COVID-19 world are a reminder to not take small pleasures for granted, a reminder to value our health and the health of others, a reminder of the need for human contact and community.
I share the same small wishes, too, longing to go see my family without worrying about bringing the virus home from my workplace, wanting to run in the open air without a mask. Still, I hope not just for the resumption of simple pleasures, but for the end of the pandemic to unparalyze us and to bring about some much needed change. I hope we don’t get so caught up in these post-pandemic firsts that we forget the lessons that 2020 and the pandemic taught us about the various ways we should be doing better. In case we survive the pandemic, we need a to-do list for what to do afterward.
In the first place, we should be voting better, and expecting better from public servants. This is not to pin the blame on well-intentioned voters of elections past, but to highlight the way that 2020 has made it clear that the people we have placed in power have every intention of serving themselves, not the public. From the missing PhilHealth billions, VIP testing, exemptions for high-profile quarantine violators, to early vaccination among privileged circles, we’ve reached a point of unacceptable impunity that simply must not be allowed to continue in our post-pandemic future. Quarantine restrictions as well as fears for personal safety have stayed the hand of those who want to perform public demonstrations, forcing them to confine their shock and outrage to angry social media posts. In the distant future of a post-pandemic Philippines, can we make our displeasure heard in other ways? Can we do more?
In a better world, and with a better government, the end of quarantine should also give us a chance to rebuild our health system and invest better in public health. The gaps in health care were felt keenly by a majority of Filipinos already before the pandemic, so it goes without saying that the people we next elect into power should keep health, and its determinants, a priority. Still, we are reminded by experts time and again that the coronavirus will not be the last pandemic. World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently criticized the short-sighted response of each country in responding to outbreaks but doing nothing to prepare for the next epidemics. “For too long, the world has operated on a cycle of panic and neglect,” he said, noting that repeated warnings about a possible epidemic were being ignored long before the first surges in Wuhan. We have the right to expect the government and its health agencies to be able to detect, mitigate and control future emergencies.
This leads to one more item on the post-pandemic to-do list: to invest in expertise and research. Not so long ago, Sen. Cynthia Villar criticized those who are “baliw na baliw sa research,” but the pandemic has highlighted the importance of clear, reliable information based on expertise and sound research, in every arena from contact tracing, resource allocation, personal protective equipment, to public health. Let us look back in horror at arbitrary, unfounded decisions made in 2020, such as the reduction of person to person distance in public transport. We can no longer afford to dismiss the importance of research. In the same vein, we can no longer afford to dismiss expert opinion in decision-making.
Whatever our post-pandemic to-do lists look like, we also can no longer afford to focus only on our personal interests and pleasures. The pandemic shows clearly that we live in an interconnected world, and in such a world, “Solidarity is self-interest,” as UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in an address last September. “We cannot respond to this crisis by going back to what was.”
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