EXPLAINER: 'Covid-free' barangays in Cebu City: term may mislead, induce complacency. A community is Covid-free only if its people are immune to the virus.

Pachico A. Seares
·4 min read

AS THE deadline neared on the reward of P100,000 for each barangay in Cebu City that has a record of zero Covid-19 cases from November 1 until December 31, public interest has revved up.

Which barangays made it? As of December 30, the city's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) recorded three drop-outs from the earlier list

of 55. Thus, the day before the last day of competition, out of 80 barangays, the city still had 28 barangays with active cases and 52 "Covid-free."

On the same day, after having only single-digit cases for several days, the city started logging double-digit numbers.

Which trackers EOC and Department of Health feared and hoped against but expected in the wake of the Christmas season with the family parties, dawn masses, and crowds of shoppers.

It also reinforced the science that the corona-virus is still very much beyond human control. The health protocols and, soon, the vaccines help. But until the community and the rest of the country acquire immunity, a barangay struck with Covid or not can hardly be considered Covid-free.

REASON FOR REWARD. Mayor Edgardo Labella announced the P100,000 prize after the Cebu visit of Cabinet Secretary Roy Cimatu last October 22. The retired general who heads DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) and is Visayas overseer of IATF, the national task force on Covid-19, said the city could improve further its performance against the plague by bringing to zero the number of active cases.

After its rescue from ECQ or enhanced quarantine pit, Cebu City became a model to other local governments wrestling with the plague. The city could still do better, Cimatu said.

Mayor Labella is taking the prize money from the one billion pesos, out of a total of P3.5 billion, the City Council appropriated in lump sums as "Covid-19 response." Thus, the contest of sort that aims to encourage barangay officials to enforce religiously health protocols and act swiftly on any active Covid case that breaks out.

DEFINE 'COVID-FREE.' The basic rule for Labella's reward is clear enough. A barangay that is "Covid-free" and qualifies for the P100,000 purse is one that records no single person struck with coronavirus during the entire months of November and December.

References of stories of "Covid-free" countries (only 10, as of this reporting) say the country must have "zero case of transmission."

The IATF-EID (Inter-agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases) last October came up with the term "new normal," to refer to the state of LGUs that no longer have new cases. From MGCQ or modified general community quarantine, the next state, when the quarantine is totally lifted, is supposed to be the "New Normal" or as a proposed bill in the House phrases it "Better Normal."

But it has not yet come to that. IATF still has to draft the rules for a no-quarantine state, the reason being that the country, or any part of it, is not yet Covid-free.

WHY THE TERM MISLEADS. "Covid-free" must be the next stage, after the series of quarantines we had gone through, with the lockdowns, curfews, border controls, immobilized public transport and mandatory CQ passes.

It is not yet achieved, not until majority of the population becomes immune to the virus. Our national government is still negotiating for the country's share of the supply of vaccines, the earliest date being March or the second or third quarter of next year.

That, even as a new strain of coronavirus, more infectious and meaner, is reported in United Kingdom and the US, among other countries. Because of the threat, President Duterte and IATF have put off plans to resume face-to-face classes in June.

The term "Covid-free" might mislead residents and visitors of a barangay, making them complacent.

Although the mayor limited the meaning of the phrase to serve the purpose of his competition, it could be loosely used and thus misunderstood, and might lead to complacency.

A Cebu-based columnist for a Manila broadsheet noted: "One of the 'worst' trends at least in local media is the use of the phrase 'Covid-free' to describe the absence of confirmed cases in certain localities. It is seriously misleading unless the basis for such 'declaration' is mass testing of the entire populace in such specific place."

WHAT VACCINES MEAN. The coming of vaccines offers a promise, the light at the proverbial tunnel's end.

But aside from delay in acquisition and rollout amid the inevitable suspicion of corruption, there are questions about the vaccine itself, the choice of brand and its quality (Chinese or American, 50-50 chance or 95 percent effectiveness) and duration of efficacy, amid the new surge in some countries with the threat of variations of the virus strain.

How many millions of people and how many millions of doses are needed to reach the stage of an immunized population?

The New Normal or Better Normal may yet come but putting up the sign "Covid-free" in your barangay may be premature. As PNP chief Debold Sinas would say, "Not for now."