Philippine Star editorial urges testing, tracing

The Philippine Star Editorial Cartoon, January 4, 2022.

CHEERS TO The Philippine Star for its editorial that raised critical points otherwise absent from news accounts on the current surge of COVID-19 cases. 

The Star’s editorial “Tracing, testing urgently needed” published January 4, 2022 stressed the importance of quick and decisive action by the government following the post-holiday surge in reported Omicron cases. 

The piece went beyond repeating the daily tallies  carried in the news and pointed out the existing faults of the current system: “The government never fully dealt with the weakness of contact tracing capability, leaving the task largely to local government units while hoping that vaccination would make up for the inadequacy.” 

The editorial described as a “national embarrassment” the government’s contact tracing app, StaySafe.PH, as LGUs have yet to link their databases to fulfill the purpose of the unified tracing system. It recalled that Health Secretary Francisco Duque III admitted to the Senate last year that the app “had almost no impact”. Benjamin Magalong, former contact tracing “czar”,  named contact tracing the “weakest link” in the government’s COVID-19 response.

The editorial also highlighted the continued inaccessibility of testing, with the steep price of tests deterring many from availing of the service, even when experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. It noted the absence of any budget allocation for free mass testing in the PHP 5.024 trillion national budget for 2022, an issue noted by Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate in a recent statement

This points to the continued failure of the Department of Health (DOH) to do what it has to do so that mass testing can become the crucial part of the anti-pandemic strategy that it has been in other countries. 

The editorial concluded with a clarion call for what needs to be done to manage the current surge in cases: “Restricting mobility and vaccination are not enough. From the start, efficient contact tracing and aggressive testing have been shown to be effective in containing a surge. They will be indispensable in fighting Omicron.”

News accounts did not include any discussion about the importance of testing and contact tracing; although the lack of these had been a constant point of contention since the beginning of the pandemic. Experts have argued for the importance of both in the Philippine’s overall plan to address the COVID-19 crisis.  

Journalists have been content to quote statements by sources who call for either mass testing or contact tracing — relegating the matter as a “point of view,” or as an expressed opinion, instead of what it is: an established fact.