From the Newsrooms: November 27 to December 2, 2023

Rise in respiratory infections, bicameral discussion on national budget, revival of peace talks between government and NDF

REPORTS OF a surge of respiratory illnesses in China recall the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2019. Hospitals in Northern China, particularly in Beijing and Liaoning, have filled up with sick children. The World Health Organization (WHO) noted that these areas have reported an increase in respiratory infections since mid-October. 

Philippine media, particularly GMA-7, TV5 and ANC picked up on the surge on November 24 and 25, a few days after the WHO issued a statement saying it had officially requested detailed information on the cases, including epidemiological data and laboratory results. The three reports included the Chinese health authorities’ response confirming that the cases were caused by the already known respiratory viruses, including the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae — and not any new pathogen.  Chinese health officials said that no unusual signs or symptoms have been observed among patients; pointing to the lifting of COVID restrictions and the colder season as possible reasons for the spread of infection. 

ABS-CBN’s online report cited a statement from the Department of Health (DOH) on November 29 that it was not yet recommending border controls, taking the cue from the WHO which also ruled out travel restrictions but recommended general preventive measures against respiratory illnesses. On the same date, Health Secretary Teodoro Herbosa told the media in a press conference that Filipinos should not worry about the situation in China as DOH was actively monitoring developments. 

Nevertheless, the situation raises alarm for vulnerable groups. On December 2, Philippine Daily Inquirer cited Health Assistant Secretary Beverly Ho who instructed the public to keep masks on to protect against threat of pneumonia. DOH data showed more than 158,000 cases of the disease from January to October 2023, a 46 percent increase from last year’s figures for the same 10-month period.

On top of this, media including GMA-7, CNN Philippines, and reported the DOH record of more than 182,000 flu-like illnesses as of November 1– 51 percent higher than the record for the same period in 2022.  

In separate interviews with One PH, The Philippine Star and the Inquirer, DOH spokesperson Undersecretary Eric Tayag revealed that the Health department is now on the lookout for Mycoplasma pneumoniae, which causes the so-called “walking pneumonia.” Tayag explained that this mostly affects children, but anyone who has this pathogen can transmit it even before symptoms show. He added that tests are not usually conducted to confirm this particular bacterium as the cause of illness, since infected persons do not usually demand urgent medical attention. However, Tayag cautioned that data from China showed the bacterium’s high resistance to antibiotics.

In TV Patrol’s report, Tayag asked why so many cases in China have ended up in hospital. He added that China still has to clarify whether the children patients have been infected solely by the Mycoplasma bacterium or if cases indicate any other virus. 

Saksi reported on November 29 that the Philippine General Hospital itself is already accommodating severe pneumonia cases among infants and the elderly, many of them already intubated or placed in the intensive care unit.

Herbosa was quick to claim the improved capacity of Philippine hospitals to respond to rising respiratory illnesses because of the COVID experience. However, media should probe more closely what the DOH is doing to monitor the situation in China so travel restrictions can be imposed as necessary. Otherwise, the experience of COVID-19 has not taught its lessons. 

Journalists should also continue to ask DOH the more urgent question: What is the department doing to actually prevent infections which would impose on citizens the huge costs of hospitalization?

More from the media:

  • The bicameral panel deliberations on the proposed PHP5.7 trillion national budget began on November 30. That same day, former lawmaker Neri Colmenares called on Congress to open the bicameral proceedings to the public, expressing his concern that budget “insertions” usually happen at this point of the process.  

    In his report on, Gabriel Pabico Lalu noted that bicameral conferences are traditionally held behind closed doors and opened selectively at some points to the media.

    Senator Sonny Angara told reporters in a December 1 briefing that both houses stood by their respective decisions to remove the controversial confidential funds for the Office of the Vice President, but retained the same funds for the Office of the President.
  • In separate press briefings on November 28, the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front said that they have agreed to revive peace talks between the government and communist rebels. While the announcement was given prominence in the news, there has been no information about the start of the talks, the members of the negotiating panels, and the scope or content to be taken up.

    Both heads of the police and the military welcomed the announcement. General Romeo Brawner Jr., chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, clarified that the military will continue operations against the New People’s Army while awaiting details of the peace talks.
  • With recent headlines focused on President Marcos’ being open to the ICC conducting its investigation, the public should note the tentative statements made by other government officials. 

    In an interview with CNN Philippines’ The Source on December 1, Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra said cryptically that there is no reason to prevent investigats of the International Criminal Court (ICC) from entering the country, but immigration officers, as guided by the Department of Justice (DOJ), still have the discretion “to admit or not to admit certain persons whom they think may be considered as undesirable.” 

    In a Palace briefing that same day, DOJ Spokesperson Mico Clavano confirmed how things are still up in the air about the government’s response to this issue, telling reporters that the president and the justice secretary have yet to talk about the country’s possible cooperation with the ICC.