During the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the Philippines won its first Olympic medal through bowling. But the achievement was not included in the medal tally because bowling was considered a demonstration sport. Nevertheless, the whole country celebrated the win of Arianne Cerdeña, who was quoted on television saying, “It’s the only sport wherein we Filipinos could win medals.”
Thirty-three years later at the recently-concluded Tokyo Olympics, another Filipina athlete made history—this time, not in the bowling category. When Hidilyn Diaz triumphantly lifted 127 kilograms in the clean and jerk category, she succeeded in two things: breaking an Olympic record, and most important of all, snagging the country’s first official Olympic gold medal.
But what made this victory happen? Hidilyn, who wore the Miraculous Medal of the Blessed Mother around her neck throughout the competition, has always been quick to acknowledge not only divine guidance but also the support of Team HD (Team Hidilyn Diaz). The team is composed of Head Coach Gao Kaiwen, Strength and Conditioning Coach Julius Naranjo, Sports Nutritionist Jeaneth Aro, and Sports Psychologist Karen Katrina Trinidad.
To learn the important role of mental training in Hidilyn’s win, Panahon TV interviewed Dr. Trinidad, who is also a consultant in the Sports Psychology Unit of the Philippine Sports Commission.
Team HD (from L-R: Naranjo, Aro, Diaz, Trinidad, Gao Kaiwen)
Photo from Hidilyn Diaz’s Facebook Page
Sports Psychology 101
With today’s increased awareness on mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, clinical psychologists are the often-mentioned profession in the psychology sector. But Dr. Trinidad explained the need for sports psychologists. “Athletes are also people. They have to care for their mental health. They are prone to anxiety especially when they compete. So, they should prepare not only their bodies but also the psychological aspect.”
Like physical skills, mental skills take time to develop. This is why Dr. Trinidad encourages athletes to consult with a sports psychologist before a competition.
Even before the 2016 Rio Olympics, Hidilyn had been availing of the PSC’s psychological services. But at the time, the powerlifting athlete’s sessions weren’t as regular. “She would just go visit the unit or office every once and a while. But after she got the silver medal in Rio, she went back to the office. She asked me, ‘Doc, mag-Olympics pa kaya ako?’ So I countered, ‘Do you think kaya mo pa ba?’ Because when we talk about the Olympics, we’re talking about four years of preparation.”
According to Dr. Trinidad, Hidilyn initially confided that she couldn’t imagine herself training every day for four years. The sports psychologist then advised Hidilyn to do something else besides training. Upon learning that Hidilyn wanted to finish college, Dr. Trinidad helped her look for a school.
The then silver medalist took up business management at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde in 2017. However, she had to pause her studies to focus on her Olympic training. Still, Dr. Trinidad said that studying made a positive impact on Hidilyn. “Because she was studying, those four years flew by. She was also happy because she was able to socialize outside the sport. Studying developed her cognitive thinking and time management skills.”
Hidilyn biting her gold medal (photo from Hidilyn Diaz’s Facebook Page)
Hidilyn’s Psychological Training
Team HD was formed sometime in 2018. But before that, Hidilyn had already been training under the experts. Team HD was formally formed prior to the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. In that competition, Hidilyn took home her first gold. Ever since, Team HD has accompanied the weightlifting champ in all her games.
To facilitate Hidilyn’s mental health, Dr. Trinidad advised her the following:
- “Remember your why.” Because of the pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics was either going to be postponed or canceled. This uncertainty wreaked havoc on Hidilyn’s well-being. “Her anxiety level was high at the time, so we had to regulate it,” Dr. Trinidad said. “She had to always go back to ‘why’. Why is she doing this?” Reminding herself of her original motivation pushed Hidilyn to continue training.
- Improve confidence level. “You gain confidence through training, experience and feedback,” Dr. Trinidad stated. Days before the Olympic finals, Dr. Trinidad reminded Hidilyn of her long experience in the sport. Hidilyn, who began weightlifting at 11 years old, is now 30 years old. “I told her that she’s already an expert in the field, so she should be confident. Lifting the barbell is something she can do automatically.” Because Hidilyn was the oldest among the weightlifting participants, people were questioning if she would succeed. Dr. Trinidad waved away this doubt. “No one can limit you. As long as you like what you’re doing, you can be successful.”
- Engage in self-talk. To drive home the weightlifting technique of “one motion, chest out”, during the finals, Hidilyn was often seen mouthing the phrase like a mantra. “It’s a way to remind herself of what she should do. In weightlifting, one moment or one second of doubt can already interfere with your performance. So, we really thought of the best self-talk that would be effective for her,” shared Dr. Trinidad.
- Do mental imagery. Before Hidilyn competed, her coaches would make her go up the podium so she can familiarize herself with the environment. Before the Olympic finals, Team HD arrived ahead of Hidilyn’s competitors. “We requested the officials to let Hidilyn go up the stage. Even if it was only for a few minutes, she was able to get a feel of her environment,” recounted Dr. Trinidad.
Hidilyn training in Melaka, Malaysia (photo from Hidilyn Diaz’s Facebook Page)
Training in Malaysia
Before the Olympics, Hidilyn stayed in Malaysia throughout the pandemic. Dr. Trinidad recalled how Hidilyn was filled with self-doubt back then. “She’d call us one by one via Zoom to ask if we were going to stick with her. We assured her that whether the Olympics would push through or not, we were going to support her.”
Dr. Trinidad believes that training in Malaysia was good for Hidilyn. “It was a provincial environment, something she was used to. It’s not in a city setting, so she was able to relax and stay away from distractions. Hidilyn is someone who cannot say no. If she stayed in Manila, she would probably have many commitments and wouldn’t able to focus.”
To push Hidilyn’s limits, Dr. Trinidad advised her to improve her performance by 1% every day. “Her success is well-deserved because it’s a product of hard word, determination and motivation. She did it not only for herself but also for the country.”
Science and Sports
After Hidilyn’s victory in addition to the 2 silver and 1 bronze medals the country collected from the Olympics, Dr. Trinidad hopes that more athletic organizations would be open to scientific training. “Sports today is already scientific. It’s something measurable. Also, mental health should be considered because the more athletes compete, the more pressure they experience. If they don’t care for their well-being, they will eventually burn out. We’re going to lose good athletes along the way.”
Being mentally healthy means being able to adjust to new environments, and enjoying a sense of balance. “At the end of the day, the body and mind get exhausted. Our approach should be holistic—physical, psychological and mental.”
But what’s next for Hidilyn? Dr. Trinidad said that Hidilyn is still unsure, because she was focused solely on the Olympics. But whatever the champion decides, Dr. Trinidad’s advice remains timeless. “I told her that with this pandemic, life is short. It’s ok if you want to compete as long as you enjoy what you’re doing. You have to think for yourself, not for other people. Because at the end of the day, it’s your life.”
Hidilyn with Team HD after her win (photo from Hidilyn Diaz’s Facebook Page)
Before the pandemic hit, there was first an epidemic in the Philippines. From January to July 2019, the Department of Health (DOH) recorded 146,062 dengue cases in the country—98% higher than that of the previous year. Because of this spike in cases and 622 deaths, a national dengue epidemic was declared to better mitigate both the causes and effects of the disease.
Dengue wreaks the worst havoc during the rainy season, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. With the country frequently experiencing monsoon rains and about 20 tropical cyclones a year, DOH introduced its health campaign against WILD Diseases—an acronym for common illnesses during the rainy season.
Photo from DOH Bicol’s Facebook page
W IS FOR WATER-BORNE DISEASES.
According to Dr. Lionel Peters, a public health physician, water-borne and foot diseases are caused by the ingestion of contaminated water or food. Examples of these diseases include:
- typhoid fever
- acute gastroenteritis characterized by diarrhea and frequent vomiting
- dysentery or bloody diarrhea
- Hepatitis A, a liver infection caused by the hepatitis virus
“Water-borne diseases are usually bacterial or viral,” said Dr. Peters. “Diarrhea is its most common symptom, but patients can also experience fever, muscle pain and vomiting.” These illnesses are widespread during the rainy season, which compromises sanitation and access to safe drinking water.
Dr. Peters, also a doctor to the barrios, has seen first-hand how these diseases affect Filipinos living in remote areas. “There are so many places where people don’t have sanitation facilities and toilets. This system makes it easy for human waste to contaminate water sources, which is how people get sick. Water-borne diseases can kill through dehydration, especially among children and those with an weak immune system.”
During the rainy season, Dr. Peters and his team make it a point to visit barangays to remind residents to do the following:
- Boil water before drinking. Those living in remote places rely on wells for water. But during the rainy season, the run-off water from the mountains which may carry human and animal wastes end up in wells. To ensure clean drinking water, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) recommends filtering cloudy water through a clean cloth or paper towel before bringing it a roiling boil for 3 minutes.
- Frequently wash hands. “Hand washing is one of the best measures against disease. Proper hand sanitation is the key, as well as the proper sanitation of the body,” said Dr. Peters.
- Practice proper food handling and storage. Wash hands before touching food, and always store food in clean containers. To prevent food spoilage, cook only what you can consume immediately. This is especially advisable in places without refrigeration.
- Maintain clean surroundings. This minimizes food and water contamination, and discourages pests which may carry diseases.
I IS FOR INFLUENZA-LIKE ILLNESS.
Aileen Espiritu, program manager of the DOH’s National Aedes-Borne Viral Disease Prevention and Control, stated that influenza-like illnesses are lung diseases caused by the influenza or flu virus.
Because flu symptoms are similar to those of COVID-19, Espiritu offered this guide:
|Symptoms appear 1-5 days after exposure to the virus.||Symptoms appear after 5 days or more after exposure to the virus.|
|Its main symptom is severe coughing. This may be accompanied by fever and symptoms, which last for 1-7 days.||Usual symptoms include fever, cough, difficulty in breathing, fatigue, sore throat, runny nose, muscle pain, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, and the possible loss of taste and smell.|
|Flu can lead to complications like bronchitis and lung infection. It may be fatal.||According to WebMD, those with both COVID-19 and comorbidities may end up with pneumonia, acute respiratory failure, acute cardiac injury and many others. COVID-19 may be fatal.|
Because flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, Espiritu recommended taking the RT-PCR test for COVID-19 to determine the disease. “To ensure our safety and that of our loved ones, we should always remember to quarantine or isolate ourselves while waiting for our swab test results,” she said in a mix of Filipino and English. “This prevents us from spreading the virus.”
Leptospirosis is prevalent in urban places. (photo by Jilson Tiu/Greenpeace)
L IS FOR LEPTOSPIROSIS
According to Dr. Peters, leptospirosis is caused by bacteria found in animal urine, particularly from rats. “When we cross a flooded area contaminated with rat urine and we have wounds or a break in the skin, the bacteria can enter our bodies and cause infection.” The most common symptom of leptospirosis is fever. “So, if you have fever two days after your flood exposure, consult a doctor right away. We want to keep the infection from progressing and causing complications.”
Complications, which include kidney failure may cause death. Dr. Peters stated the other common symptoms of leptospirosis aside from fever:
- muscle ache
- body pain
- severe headache
- eye redness
- abdominal pain
- vomiting and diarrhea
“The best way to avoid leptospirosis is to avoid flood exposure, especially if you have wounds and skin breaks. Preventive measures include preparedness. If you live in a flood-prone area, make sure you’re protected. Even before the rainy season comes, invest in rain boots and protective clothing to prevent flood water from touching your skin,” said Dr. Peters. He added that leptospirosis is rampant in urban areas. This is why children should not be allowed playing in flood water.
D IS FOR DENGUE.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dengue “is transmitted by female mosquitoes mainly of the species Aedes aegypti.” Though dengue is at its peak during the rainy season, Espiritu said it is present any time of the year. “When the rains come from July to October, the mosquitoes’ breeding sites multiply. The dengue-carrying mosquitoes prefer dark places with stagnant water.”
Like the other WILD diseases, an early medical consultation is vital to prevent dengue from worsening. “If you’ve had fever for 2-7 days and experiencing at least two of its symptoms, set an appointment with a doctor right away,” advised Espiritu. She shared the following dengue symptoms:
- Feeling of being weak
- Muscle and joint pain
- Pain at the back of the eyes
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Red or itchy skin
From the declaration of the National Dengue Epidemic in 2019, DOH data showed that there was an 81% decrease in dengue cases and deaths in 2020. Espiritu largely attributed this success to the enhancement of DOH’s 4S strategy.
Photo from DOH Bicol’s Facebook page
- Search and destroy mosquito-breeding sites.
Anything that holds stagnant water inside and outside your homes should be emptied regularly. These include tire tubes, basins and flower vases. “If you have to store water because of water interruptions, make sure that your containers have lids so mosquitoes can’t use them as breeding places,” Espiritu said. “Make sure your surroundings are clean. Recycle or dispose of containers in and outside your homes so they won’t catch rain water.”
Wear long-sleeved shirts, pants and insect repellent to ward off mosquito bites.
- Seek early consultation.
Early prevention prevents dengue or any other disease from escalating. “We understand that many of us hesitate to go to clinics or hospitals because of COVID-19. But we have tele-consultations wherein doctors can advise you on your illness.
- Support fogging or spraying.
According to DOH, this is “only done in hotspot areas in anticipation of increased infectious diseases, especially during the rainy season.”
Recently, two barangays in South Cotabato were placed under a state of calamity due to the dengue. But Espiritu assured the public that the declaration was a proactive measure to contain and prevent the further spread of the disease. “Our health development centers and local government units (LGUs) immediately acted on the issue. We do our vectors surveillance and fogging operations, which have 3 to 4 cycles every 7 days. We do targeted indoor and outdoor residual spraying that have 3 cycles every 4 months. We also give NS1 antigen tests among suspected dengue cases.” Espiritu added that the 4S strategy is carried out as a “4 p.m. habit” since it is at this time when dengue-causing mosquitoes are most active.
Since 2019, Espiritu said that fast lanes for dengue patients have been established in health facilities. As to the fear of contracting COVID-19 through mosquito bites, Espiritu explained, “According to WHO and CDC, COVID-19 cannot be transmitted through mosquito bites.”
How to stay healthy during the rainy season
As Espiritu said, it is doubly difficult to get sick during the pandemic. The adage stays true: Prevention is better than cure. “We can avoid these diseases with simple measures,” she said. These include:
- Maintaining a healthy diet
- Getting enough rest
- Boiling water from the faucet before drinking
- Consulting a doctor when feeling sick
- Being informed about the diseases
- Keeping your surroundings clean
- Following health protocols against COVID-19
The WILD diseases may be virulent, but as Dr. Peters put it, “They can be easily prevented if we are alert and armed with the right information.” Meanwhile, Espiritu stressed the importance of being responsible for our own health. “We should prioritize our health, so we can be productive citizens. Being healthy also means protecting our loved ones.”
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, in 2019, the tourism industry’s contribution to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was 12.7%, equivalent to ₱2.48 trillion—over 10% higher than that of the previous year. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, this was reduced to more than half at only 5.4%. In February this year, Department of Tourism (DOT) Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said that 4.8 Filipinos working in the tourism sector were affected by the pandemic.
But now that restrictions are easing in most parts of the country, DOT is reviving the country’s tourism. “One advantage in the Philippines is that we have a wide domestic tourism base,” shared DOT Usec. Benito Bengzon Jr. in a mix of Filipino and English during a Panayam sa Panahon TV interview. “We don’t solely depend on foreign visitors. Filipinos themselves can help boost our economy. So, we call on our fellow Filipinos to support the reopening of travel destinations while following health and safety protocols.”
Wearing a face mask and face shield is a must during traveling. (photo by Lorna Mamaril)
How you can travel during the pandemic
As the Department of Health (DOH) continues to record daily new cases by the thousands, and with the emergence of deadlier and more transmissible variants, is it really safe to travel during this time? Usec. Bengzon assured the public that DOT consulted with DOH before restarting the travel industry. “We also listened to the pleas of those who lost their jobs—and this is one of the reasons why we’re doing this. We made sure that the 2reopened destinations are in areas which have contained COVID-19, or have low case counts. All these tourism enterprises have health and safety protocols—not only in their accommodations, but also among tour operators and in tour buses, restaurants, and convention facilities.”
According to Usec. Bengzon, the government also made traveling more convenient with the following initiatives:
- Uniform travel requirements
Because travelers complained about different travel requirements from local government units (LGUs), the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) streamlined the protocols. Right now, the only requirement is a negative RT-PCR test. But because situations may change any time, www.philippines.travel provides a list of destinations, their quarantine statuses and particular travel requirements. As of writing, Baguio City welcomes fully vaccinated tourists without the COVID-19 test. “Areas under MGCQ (modified general community quarantine) or GCQ (general community quarantine) are allowed to open their destinations, but if their LGUs don’t want to accept tourists, then that is something we respect,” said Usec. Bengzon.
- Subsidized RT-PCR tests for local tourists
The DOH’s advisory on the price range of RT-PCR testing is a maximum price cap of ₱5,000 for private laboratories, and ₱3,800 for public laboratories. Since this is a must before traveling, the DOT released ₱35.17 million this year to fund 50% of the testing cost for domestic travelers who have confirmed round-trip transportation tickets and a booking confirmation with a DOT-accredited accommodation establishment. Done in partnership with the Philippine General Hospital and the Philippine Children’s Medical Center, Filipino tourists can apply for the subsidy program through this website.
- No age restriction
Filipino of all ages are now allowed to travel. “Before, those below 18 and over 65 years old weren’t allowed to travel,” recalled Usec. Bengzon. “We had to adjust because we all know that when Filipinos travel, they bring the whole family.” Still, all members including infants are required to undergo RT-PCR testing.
- Lessened quarantine period for those entering the Philippines
Recently, the IATF announced that fully vaccinated travelers from “green” countries entering the Philippines now have a lessened quarantine period of 7 days from the previously required 10 days. “Green” countries are “classified by the DOH as low-risk countries or jurisdictions based on disease incidence rate.” Currently, the 57 countries and jurisdictions include:
Antigua and Barbuda
The British Virgin Islands
Cote d’ Ivoire (Ivory Coast)
Isle of Man
Northern Mariana Islands
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Pierre and Miquelon
Turks and Caicos Islands (UK)
IATF now allows children below 18 years old to travel. (Photo by Blueberrie Recto)
Ensuring travel safety
Based on a DOT survey conducted last year, Usec. Bengzon stated that the top destinations Filipinos want to visit when restrictions eased were Boracay and Palawan. But top results also included road trip and staycation destinations. Now that leisure travel is allowed, Usec. Bengzon offered these safety tips:
- Follow minimum public health standards.
“We say this over and over, but this is the most important. We should comply by wearing our face masks and face shields, and by practicing frequent handwashing and physical distancing.” In turn, tourism establishments should also follow strict health and safety protocols. “These protocols were actually crafted by the Department of Tourism,” shared Bengzon. “Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat instructed us to craft safety protocols to ensure everyone’s safety—from tourists and tourism employees to local communities.”
- Conduct transactions online.
To minimize face-to-face contact, accommodations encourage online transactions such as reservation and registration. To reduce the risk of infections, front desks and restaurants are equipped with glass or acrylic partitions. Hotels also limit the number of occupants in a room, depending on its size.
- Allot enough time for planning your trip.
Because traveling during the pandemic requires additional logistics, Usec. Bengzon advised giving yourself enough time to prepare. “If there’s one good thing that came from this pandemic, it’s that we’ve become disciplined in doing our research and making plans. Read up on your destination and its travel requirements. Use technology to your advantage when getting information and making reservations. When moving around the different destinations, cooperate and be patient.”
Helping the travel industry
Technology has also helped travel agency owner, John Paull Belleca, in pivoting his business called Travelleca. “Since the pandemic, we shifted to conducting our business online for the safety of our employees and clients. The good thing about that was we were able to provide 24/7 services, and even grow our market.” Aside from preparing itineraries, Travelleca also assists in securing travel requirements such as swab testing and passport renewals.
But despite the ease in restrictions, Belleca confessed that his business has yet to fully recover. For struggling travel agencies like his, Usec. Bengzon said that the DOT has prepared a 6-billion peso budget to be used by tourism enterprises for their capital loans. “The terms and conditions are very friendly. The loans don’t require collateral or interest. Businesses only need to pay a service fee.” The loan period is up to 4 years, with a grace period of up to 2 years. “For those who lost their jobs related to tourism, we have a program with the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), which allotted ₱3 billion for cash assistance.”
Right now, the DOT continues its training of tourism frontliners on the Filipino brand of hospitality, and helping destinations in their branding, marketing, and events using virtual platforms.
Passport assistance services help travel agencies like Travelleca stay afloat during the pandemic. (photo from Travelleca’s Facebook page)
Is it really safe to travel during the pandemic?
Though pandemic travel still has its risks, Usec. Bengzon believes that it is matter of balancing health and safety protocols with the need to restart an industry that provides millions of jobs to Filipinos. “We know that tourism significantly contributes to our economy. If we cooperate, and with patience and understanding, we’re confident that we can revive our country’s travel industry.”
Still, the ball is in the Filipinos’ court. Whether they choose to travel or not depends on their risk appetite—as well as the country’s pandemic recovery. As Belleca put it, “I think herd immunity is also one of the keys in reviving tourism. This will also ease our fellow Filipinos’ fear of COVID-19.”
Panayam sa Panahon TV airs every Tuesday at 5 p.m. on Panahon TV’s Facebook page.
Latest data from the Department of Health (DOH) stated that at least 2.6 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. According to herdimmunity.ph, this is only 3.76% of the 70-million population the government aims to vaccinate this year to achieve herd immunity. The website says that at the current average rate of 216,451 daily vaccinations, herd immunity will be reached in 1.6 years, or in February 2023. For us to achieve herd immunity by the end of the year, the government needs to ramp up its vaccination 3.3 times its current rate.
Herd immunity or population immunity is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the “indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection.” To better understand how we can reach this goal faster, the pilot online episode of Panayam sa Panahon TV featured the experts—health reform advocate Dr. Anthony Leachon and Dr. Noel Bernardo from the Philippine Red Cross.
(photo from Quezon City Hall’s Facebook page)
Why PH is falling behind in the global vaccination drive
When the COVID-19 vaccines still weren’t available, governments resorted to lockdowns to stop the spread of disease. But now, countries like the United Kingdom and the United States have freed up their economies, thanks to systematic and rapid vaccination programs. In a recent segment of Panahon TV called Buhay Pandemya, which featured a Filipino caregiver in Jerusalem in Israel, maskless locals can be seen flocking to the streets and celebrating the return of normalcy. Israel was one of the countries that started their vaccination early, which began last December 2020.
But the scenario in the Philippines is a different story. Though cases in the National Capitol Region (NCR) have been somewhat contained, other areas are experiencing surges. Lockdowns and quarantines are still in place, keeping the economy from fully recovering. If we already know the tried-and-tested formula of mass vaccination as the main key to herd immunity, why then are we still behind in the immunization drive? Our experts chalked it up to three main reasons.
- Lack of vaccine supply
Based on Our World in Data’s latest report, the Philippines ranks 8th among the 10 ASEAN countries in terms of vaccine rollout. During the interview, Dr. Bernardo expressed surprise over his discovery that out of the 3,700 approved vaccination sites in the country, only 1,700 are active. “Based on my experience on the ground with the different LGUs and the bakuna centers of the Philippine Red Cross, a big factor is the lack of vaccines,” he said in Filipino. “Bakuna centers don’t receive enough vaccines. Other LGUs (local government units) can only operate half-days.” Dr. Leachon was quick to agree. “If you don’t have vaccines, it doesn’t matter if you have vaccination sites. People will still have no access to vaccination.”
- Lack of organization
With data gathered from DOH, the National Task Force Against COVID-19, the Inter-Agency Task Force and news outlets, Herdimmunity.ph states that we currently have over 17 million vaccine doses, “enough to fully vaccinate 12.47% of the target population.” If such is the case, why is the vaccination still slow?
Dr. Leachon pointed out that LGUs have varying levels of governance, with some more organized than the others. Because best practices are not adopted by all LGUs, they also have varying levels of success, making it harder for the country to reach herd immunity.
Meanwhile, Dr. Bernardo said that we should attack the issue with a “system approach”. He cited how a simple step such as securing a vaccination schedule has become problematic. “People shouldn’t have to walk in like chance passengers. When we schedule them, we know that number one, they fully consent to the vaccination. Second, they should know their vaccine brand so they can manage their expectations. That way, we avoid overcrowding. Third, our supply should cope with our demand. If people leave the site disappointed because of the hassle or lack of vaccine, then they will recount their bad experience to others. But if their experience is positive, others will be motivated to be vaccinated.”
In January this year, a Pulse Asia Survey resulted in 4 out of 10 Filipinos not wanting to get vaccinated. According to Bernardo, the survey was repeated in March. This time, the figure climbed up to 6 out of 10 Filipinos refusing vaccination. “There must be something about the people’s experience in the bakuna centers that increased hesitancy—which we must address right away. Because even if the government promised a flood of vaccines eventually coming in, will people agree to be vaccinated?”
- Vaccine Hesitancy
According to DOH, 9% or over 100,000 of vaccinees who received their first dose missed out on their second dose. According to Dr. Leachon, apart from disorderly systems that discouraged Filipinos, this may be also attributed to the lack of information, leading to decreased awareness. “Maybe they don’t know where they will go to for their second dose. Different vaccine brands have different durations between the two doses. Vaccinees should be given a checklist that includes all the info they need, including when they should return.”
Leachon also suggested massive info campaigns on the possible adverse effects of the vaccine, and the mode of registration. “Online registration is very difficult for the elderly and the poor. Why should we make it hard for them? We need to have a faster registration process.” Another common complaint among registrants is the slow response of LGUs.
Recently, the issue of vaccine brands became even more heated when hundreds of Indonesian health workers became infected with COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated with Sinovac. Recently, 10 Indonesian doctors died despite their complete inoculation with the Chinese vaccine. Until now, China has not provided large-scale data on Sinovac’s effectiveness against the Delta variant. “Our life is all about choices,” Dr. Leachon said. “We choose our spouse, clothes, food. So, it’s even more important to choose what is injected into our bodies. When we don’t give people choices, we’ll have a hard time convincing them to get vaccinated.”
According to WHO, the Sinovac vaccine, in a phase 3 trial in Brazil “showed that two doses, administered at an interval of 14 days, had an efficacy of 51% against symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection.” With vaccine brands such as Pfizer and Moderna having an efficacy of 90% or more, some Filipinos are thinking twice about being inoculated with Sinovac. “About 70% of our vaccine inventory is Sinovac. What we’ve seen in Parañaque and Manila wherein residents flocked to the vaccination sites that gave out Pfizer is a sign that Filipinos are brand-conscious. They know their health is on the line. They value the quality, efficacy and safety of the vaccine,” Leachon said.
“Bakuna bus”—a partnership of the Philippine Red Cross and UBE Express
Ways to improve the vaccination drive
Once the main issue of vaccine supply is addressed, our interviewees suggested the following to ramp up our vaccination drive:
- Prioritize urban areas that drive the national economy.
ABS-CBN Data Analytics Head Edson Guido recently tweeted that though COVID-19 cases in NCR are decreasing, only 7.4% of its population are fully vaccinated. Dr. Leachon suggested that prioritizing the NCR Plus Bubble can help the country achieve herd immunity faster. “We shouldn’t spread the vaccine supply thinly across the country, especially those with no cold-chain facilities. For example, we’re expecting 40 million doses of Pfizer, which will fully vaccinate 20 million people. It’s better to prioritize super metro areas like NCR Plus, which has a population of around 26 million—and 70% of that is 18 million. If herd immunity is achieved in NCR Plus, we can open our economy in time for December 2021.”
- Make vaccines more accessible.
Although mega vaccination sites may work, Dr. Leachon pointed out that these are available only in selected areas. He believes that small but multiple vaccination sites may be more efficient. “Mega vaccination sites are prone to bottlenecks and may be superspreading events. Vaccination sites should be convenient for the elderly and those with comorbidities. These sites should be many and close to residents, who can be vaccinated faster because they don’t have to worry about transportation. Because the crowd is spread out among multiple sites, waiting time is reduced.” Dr. Leachon suggested taking inspiration from successful countries, which mobilized malls, drugstores and other convenient stores which have cold-chain infrastructure in the vaccination drive.
Dr. Bernardo agreed that the solution lies in community-based vaccination sites. “We really have to bring the vaccine closer to our people, so they will be encouraged. If every barangay has a mini-vaccination site which can only accommodate 20 people a day, that can already make a big difference.” He also enjoined the government to give vaccination leaves for employees. “In bakuna centers I’ve visited, I asked those who weren’t able to get their second dose what happened. They told me it’s because they couldn’t file a leave. We have to consider living factors like this.”
To help more Filipinos be vaccinated, Red Cross Philippines has partnered with UBE Express in employing mobile vaccination buses to reach far-flung areas that do not have cold-chain facilities. “We are ready to partner with national agencies, LGUs, NGOs and private sectors to maximize this initiative and utilize all the logistical support that Red Cross could offer. When the vaccines arrive, we will go to places not accessible to health workers and NGOs.”
- Strengthen governance.
One important aspect of good governance, especially in our country, is disaster preparedness. Currently, we are in the middle of the rainy season, which may pose challenges in the vaccination drive. “First, vaccination programs are usually done in open courts, gyms and other large open spaces, which have good ventilation. But when it rains, these outdoor areas will be affected,” Dr. Leachon explained. “Second, you need to separate evacuation centers for typhoon victims, isolation and quarantine facilities, and vaccination sites. Because the moment people from these areas mix, this can be super-spreading event.” Another concern is power outages that may affect cold-chain facilities.
Government responsiveness is also important in gaining public trust and cooperation. “For example, we know that the reason why the cases are not going down is because we lack contact tracing. But the governments don’t respond to this. The same way with surveys done by SWS and DOH, which showed the participants’ preferred vaccine brands and their perceived effects. You have to execute a program based on what the citizens want, or else you will be doing the same thing all over again, but expecting a different result,” said Dr. Leachon.
Marmick Julian, a proud vaccinee in Parañaque, displays his injected arm. (photo by Robi Robles)
Achieving herd immunity
Dr. Bernardo believes that promoting vaccine confidence is an important step toward herd immunity. “The first vaccine brand we received should’ve been the best and most trusted. But a lot of doubts and issues were involved in our first vaccine—which was one of the main reasons of vaccine hesitancy.” To promote vaccine confidence, Dr. Bernardo stressed the need for better communicators. “There was a comms group that suggested that we relate vaccination to family. When you get yourself vaccinated, it’s a sign of love for your family and friends.”
As to achieving herd immunity this year, Dr. Bernardo was skeptical but hopeful. “We need 500,000 vaccinations a day if we want to have a happy Christmas this year.” Meanwhile, Dr. Leachon still emphasized the importance of vaccine efficacy. “We can only achieve herd immunity when the vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca arrive. We need to step up to the plate in the next 3 months and revisit our strategies,” he ended.
The scene looks straight out of a disaster movie. A 500-kilo false killer whale almost four meters long is washed up on the shore, its sleek and dark gray body mapped with scratches and wounds. It is still alive, but looks weak and disoriented. It seems even less capable to heave itself back into the deep.
The sight of a usually strong and lithe creature suddenly rendered helpless and pulled out from its environment seems like a portent of the world’s end. But the reality is that more and more incidents of marine mammal stranding are reported across the country. In fact, the false killer whale story is true, which took place in a barangay in Dansol, Pangasinan just last May. A month before, a melon-headed whale was discovered stranded along Agoo, La Union shoreline.
The false killer whale rescued in Pangasinan last May was named “Hope”. (photo courtesy of PMMSN)
Marine Mammal Stranding
“Stranding” or getting stuck on the beach usually happens to marine mammals, which include whales, dolphins, seals, walruses, dugongs, and polar bears among others. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, marine mammals have these distinct characteristics:
- They breathe air through their lungs.
- Are warm-blooded
- Have hair at some point during life
- Produce milk to nurse their babies
- Living most/all of their lives in the ocean
Dr. Lemnuel V. Aragones, head of the Marine Mammal Research and Stranding Laboratory (MMRSL) stated that the conventional hypothesis on why marine mammals get stranded is because they want to breathe easier. “When the marine mammal is weak, it’s hard for them to come up for air after being submerged in the sea for a while,” he explained in Filipino during a Panahon TV interview. “When on the shore, they get to breath air but often times also a challenge if there are strong waves; thus, most stranders only have a slim chance of survival.”
MMRSL is involved in “the data collection, archiving and sometimes detailed examination of stranded marine mammals along the Philippine coast.” By studying the stranding phenomenon, it ultimately seeks to successfully conserve and manage our country’s marine mammals. According to Aragones, the awareness on stranding is relatively new among Filipinos. “The Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network Inc. (PMMSN) was established in 2005. Back then, Filipinos still didn’t know what stranded animals meant, so we only received a few stranding reports. But since 2009, when we have already trained quite a few representatives from various coastal regions nationwide, the reports climbed up. From 2014 until now, we record an average of more than 100 stranding reports a year.”
Stranded animals on Philippine shores (photos courtesy of PMMSN)
Causes of Stranding
Based on PMMSN’s Stranding Manual, stranding is a complex phenomenon and has many possible causes. These include the following:
- Illness, malnutrition, natural toxins, parasites, or infectious disease
- Physical injury caused by: 1) human activity (fishing interaction) or 2) predators
- Tight social bonds (altruism)
- Errors in navigation and judgment
- Complex topographic conditions and weather
“The intermonsoon from March to April, when the amihan is transitioning into habagat, is when most strandings happen,” said Aragones. During this time, fishermen most likely flock to the sea because of the warm weather and calm waters. Unfortunately, they fish in areas also frequented by marine mammals such as dolphins and whales. “Some marine mammals may get entangled in fishing nets. Others find it hard to compete with the fishers for food, so probably they swim nearer and nearer to the shore, where there are unfortunately more threats, which may be attributed to their stranding.”
For instance, a sudden low-pressure area that brings about localized thunderstorms may also cause marine mammals to be stranded. Aside from net entanglement, injuries from fishing interactions may come from dynamite fishing and illegal fishing gear.
Sometimes, mass stranding— the simultaneous stranding of more than two similar-size marine mammals—may have natural reasons. “Marine mammals have often tight social bond, which, in technical terms is called ‘altruism’. They have selfless concern for each other, so even if only one member is sick, the rest of the group will stay with the ailing mammal. Sometimes, this causes a group to be stranded on the shore,” Aragones explained.
But what should you do if you witness a marine mammal stranding? Aragones gives these tips:
1. Observe. Before doing anything, observe first if the stranded marine mammal is still alive. See if it is weak or injured, or if it has simply lost its way while chasing food. If the animal appears uninjured, leave it be. Often the animal can swim back to the sea once the water level rises. But if the animal looks weak, don’t push it back to the water. That’s because it’s in danger of drowning if it’s too weak to swim. Remember that mammals need to breathe air like us.
2. If the marine mammal is weak, assist and stabilize it. Do this by making sure that the top of its head where its blowhole is located is always above water. This prevents it from aspirating sand or breathing in water, which can enter its lungs and may cause damage and eventual death.
3. Report it to the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network. According to the PMMSN website, you may report a stranding that needs immediate response by calling (47)252-9000 or 0928-5018226. Aragones stated that the PMMSN has trained almost 5,000 respondents across the country. All of them are linked to the LGUs, BFAR regional offices (and other NGAs) so if you witnessed a stranding event, you can also call the mayor’s office, the agricultural office, or the BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) regional office. These agencies can contact the trained responder in their respective areas.
For more information on marine mammal strandings, visit PMMSN’s resource center.
Respondents assisting a stranded dolphin (photo courtesy of PMMSN)
Holistic Approach to Saving Marine Mammals
To better understand stranding, Aragones said it’s important to study it in the context of both the physical environment and the animals’ biology. “We are trying to corollate and associate all parameters that we could think of in relation to what is happening to these animals and their environment. We adopted a One Health approach, so I have former students working with me who looked for pathogens, others look for pollutants. There is a veterinarian MS student who looked at the medical aspect of the stranding, and a physics major who studied the physical environment.” Aragones and his team had a study whose publication will come out soon on the characterization of the sounds of dynamite blasting and its potential impacts on whales and dolphins who navigate, and find their prey and partner in the waters using their sense of hearing (biosonar).
The health of our marine animals also reflect the health of our seas, which are hubs for human activity. Many Filipinos live near the water, and depend on it for food. But the seas’ problems are part of a much bigger picture. “Our ecosystems are ailing. Our tropical rain forests are decreasing, our wetlands are totally ignored. The pollution in our rivers end up in the sea, and this affects our coral reefs, seagrass and mangroves. We assume that areas far from the sea are safe from disturbance. Unfortunately, that is not true. What we are seeing right now, based on our data, is that there are so many pathogens, parasites and bacteria that can cause diseases. Just imagine—the toxoplasmosis disease that causes meningitis in the brain is supposedly land-based as the reproduction of this parasite is completed through cats or feline. But we can now see this type of disease in cetacean species found in the deepest parts of our seas and oceans. It’s mind-blowing how widespread water pollution now is,” said Aragones.
Other human-induced pollutants found in our seas also come from our power sources and pharmaceutical products. Aragones stressed that wherever we are, we play a part in either damaging or saving our seas. “Whatever damage the mountains experience goes straight into the oceans. If we want to have a positive impact, we must have the initiative to change our habits. Be responsible. Don’t throw your garbage anywhere. Plastic is not the one at fault, it’s us, humans. I hope we realize that we are a mere part of this huge world of biodiversity, which is our planet’s most unique component.”
Everything we—or don’t do—impacts the oceans, which make up 96.5% of the Earth’s waters. Marine mammal stranding is now part of our impact, and is something we can address if we take better care of our planet.
Dr. Lem Aragones is Professor at and former Director of the Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology of the College of Science at UP Diliman. He received a PhD in tropical environmental science from James Cook University, Townsville, Australia.
Just three days after the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that La Niña had ended, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) announced the onset of the rainy season last June 4, 2021.
From October 2020 to March this year, a weak and moderate La Niña, which refers to the cooling of ocean surface temperatures, prevailed in the country. Coupled with the Northeast Monsoon or Amihan, it was predicted to bring above-normal rain conditions, which were seen in previous typhoons. On November 1 last year, Super Typhoon Rolly, 2020’s strongest tropical cyclone in the world, devastated 8 regions including Bicol. Floods, mudslides and storm surges affected 2 million people. In the same month on the 11th, Typhoon Ulysses struck Central Luzon, causing massive floods and landslides.
Now, the Southwest Monsoon or Habagat—warm and moist air that speeds up cloud formation that causes rainfall—has become the dominant weather system in the country. This is one of the factors that prompted PAGASA to declare the start of the rainy season. In a press statement, PAGASA administrator Dr. Vincent Malano explained, “The passage of Tropical Storm Dante and the occurrence of widespread rainfall in the last five days for areas under Type 1 climate confirm the onset of the rainy season. Intermittent rains associated with the Southwest Monsoon will continue to affect Metro Manila and the western section of the country.” The western parts of Luzon, Mindoro, Negros and Palawan fall under the Type 1 climate category.
Massive flooding in Romblon due to the torrential rains brought by #DantePH. (Photos from PIA-Romblon)
The End of La Niña Does Not Spell Safety
With La Niña ending last June 1, WMO said that “neutral conditions are likely to dominate the tropical Pacific in the next few months.” PAGASA hydrologist Rosalie Pagulayan further explains, “There’s no La Niña, no El Niño, which means wind conditions have returned to normal. So, we can expect a normal amount of rainfall from June to September in the whole country.”
But as with everything related to the weather, nothing is set in stone. In WMO’s press release, the chance of neutral conditions continuing until July is at 78%. This decreases to 55% by August to October, while conditions are uncertain for the rest of the year.
Despite this high chance of neutral conditions, PAGASA warned that “The probability of near to above-normal rainfall conditions is high in the next two months (June-July.) The public and all concerned agencies are advised to take precautionary measures against the impacts of the rainy season.” Simply said, the end of La Niña does not mean that the country will be safe from tropical cyclone risks. “We can’t discard the possibility of extreme events,” says Pagulayan. “Our mindset should always be disaster preparedness.”
The Philippines is the country most-visited by tropical cyclones in the world. Here, the rainy season is synonymous with typhoons and floods. “This month of June, PAGASA forecasts that we may experience 1 to 3 tropical cyclones. Usually, tropical cyclone occurrences peak from July to September.” Though PAGASA announced there will be monsoon breaks or non-rainy periods which may last for days or weeks, Pagulayan stressed that we are currently in the thick of typhoon season.
How Manmade Activities Worsen Natural Disasters
But despite the absence of La Niña, Tropical Storm Dante caused flash floods and landslides in Visayas and Mindanao earlier this month. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) reported 11 deaths and over 122,000 people affected. Damage in agriculture was pegged at over ₱90 million, while infrastructure damage was over ₱130 million. “The amount of rainfall Dante produced was staggering and unexpected,” admitted Pagulayan. “In my opinion, the change in landscape may have been a major contributor.”
Aftermath of tropical storm #DantePH at Barangay Cabil-isan in Daram, Samar. (Photos courtesy of Slug Rosales)
Pagulayan refers to the altered natural environment brought about by human acts such as deforestation and development projects. In an earlier interview, Dr. Renato Solidum Jr, officer-in-charge of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, and undersecretary for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate explained how manmade activities can worsen disaster impacts. “Landslides occur in steep places or those with soft ground. Destroying our mountains through deforestation or housing developments leads to faster erosion and lowland flooding. The eroded soil along with improper waste disposal fill up our rivers and drainages, also causing floods.”
WMO echoed this statement by saying that now that La Niña has ended, climate events are now in the hands of human-induced climate change. “La Niña has a temporary global cooling effect, which is typically strongest in the second year of the event. This means that 2021 has got off to a relatively cool start – by recent standards. This should not lull us into a false sense of security that there is a pause in climate change,” said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.
Taalas warned that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere remain high, fueling global warming. In fact, WMO predicted a 90% chance of at least one year between 2021 to 2025 to become the warmest on record. Soaring temperatures mean warmer oceans, which spell disaster. This, Pagulayan confirmed in a previous article. “Warmer oceans result to more evaporation. When there’s more moisture in the atmosphere, this may result in intensified tropical cyclones,” she said. “This means stronger rains, storm surges, and the possibility of tornadoes. Coastal communities will be inundated even those that do not usually experience floods. Heat waves may occur. While some parts of the country may experience droughts, other parts will receive excess rainfall. The greatest impact is on food production.”
Preparedness as a Personal Responsibility
It’s the second year we, Filipinos, find ourselves grappling with both the typhoon season and the COVID-19 pandemic. While this makes the management of evacuation centers challenging, Pagulayan stresses the importance of being pro-active when it comes to preparedness. “Let’s not rely solely on the government for our safety. Let’s ask ourselves what we an contribute.” She gives the following tips:
- Coordinate and work with your community’s disaster manager. Your community’s topography and needs are unique. You, your fellow-residents and barangay leaders can best map out a preparedness plan for your community.
- While staying alert to advisories released by your community’s disaster office, it’s also advisable to read updates from national agencies. Read the reports and listen to expert interviews. The additional knowledge boosts your preparedness by helping you form a bigger picture of possible scenarios.
- If you need to evacuate, always remember to bring a Go Bag. “This includes everything you need for the first 6 hours in the evacuation center,” says Pagulayan. Keeping yourself safe as an individual is a form of community service.
A healthy diet plays a vital role in supporting our immune system, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. A healthy diet meets the requirements for our body’s functions used for growth and development. To fulfill our caloric and nutritional requirements, the quantity and quality of food we consume should be considered.
But despite this common knowledge, many of us still indulge in junk food even if we know that it is unhealthy.
What is Junk Food?
The term “junk food” was invented by Michael Jacobson, former director of the American Center for Science in the Public Interest in 1972. He described junk food as high in calories but low in nutritional value.
According to Gabriel Labrador, a nutrition officer at the National Nutrition Council, junk food is classified under HFSS or “high in fats, salt and sugar.” Like what Jacobson mentioned, he mentioned that junk food contains a lot of “empty calories” with insignificant nutritive value. He added that sugar and salt act as junk food preservatives and add flavor, but an excess of these is bad for the health. “That’s basically the reason why we call it junk food as opposed to healthy food, which provides you balanced nutrients,” said Labrador. “You have the carbohydrates, the fats but most especially, the protein and fiber in your food. Junk food has no nutritive value.”
According to countriesnow.com, the top 5 fast food-consuming countries in the world are America, France, Canada, United Kingdom and South Korea. In the Philippines, Kantar World Panel revealed that from 2015 to 2017, Filipinos’ consumption of in-home snack foods increased by 13%. The figures are cause for alarm because of the link between junk food and obesity, which may begin occurring among children and adolescents.
Photo by Tim Samuel from Pexels
The Prevalence of Junk Food
Labrador warns that junk food is even more prevalent and accessible now because of the internet. Because of social media, junk food marketers can easily target consumers, especially children and adolescents.
Junk food advertisements also often convey messages of happiness and family bonding to entice the impressionable youth. “Examples of these marketing strategies are colorful logos, including toys and characters in the packaging to really entice the children. This can have an effect on children’s diet, eating habits and food choices,” states Labrador. “As parents, it is very important that we limit the screen time of our children for television and even online to prevent them from being enticed to buy food that is highly marketed.”
Technology also makes it easier for us to order fast food through the mere tap of a finger. Another hurdle is that junk food businesses have grown smart, disguising their products as packed with nutrients. “There are a lot of unhealthy foods that are marketed to be healthy. They are disguised to be healthy food… like energy bars, fruit drinks and even breakfast cereals. If you look at the nutrition facts of those foods, you see that they are actually high in sugar and fat.”
Labrador enumerates the negative effects of consuming too much junk food:
- It can make you gain weight. Because of their high caloric content, junk food, taken on top of meals, may lead to unwanted weight gain and may lead to obesity.
- It can make you at risk for diseases. Aside from obesity, excessive junk food intake can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and even cancer.
- It can make you feel bloated. Because it is highly processed, junk food contains a lot of chemicals, which may affect our digestive health.
Maintaining a Healthy Diet
According to Labrador, lessening our junk food intake is important in developing a healthy relationship with food. However, total abstinence from junk food may not be sustainable. “Because junk food is easily available and cheap, it’s often used for socializing and bonding.” That is why moderation is key. By prioritizing healthy and natural foods over junk, we are able to get the nutrients our bodies need. Labrador offers these tips to maintain a healthy diet:
- Eat in moderation, and a balanced meal full of varied foods.
- Make sure your diet consists of 80-90% whole or unprocessed foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Only 10-20% should be allotted for processed foods.
- Labrador recommends following the “Pinggang Pinoy” for reference. Half of the plate should contain fruits and vegetables (glow food) which are rich in nutrients. One-sixth of the plate is dedicated to protein (grow food) such as meat, milk and egg products. The rest of the plate may be filled with carbohydrates (go food) such as rice.
(photo from DOH)
It is never too late to start good food habits, but these are better developed when we are young. This is why it’s vital for parents to introduce their kids to healthy foods that help them develop positive eating habits early on. Parents are also responsible for being good role models, while preparing healthy dishes for the family. Junk food may be here to stay, but by developing a taste for whole foods, we can stay healthy and fit for life.
In a recent public address, Vaccine Czar Carlito Galvez stated that over 3 million Filipinos have been vaccinated since March 1, 2021. But it is still a far cry from the 70 million the government targets to vaccinate by the end of this year to achieve herd immunity.
The Department of Health (DOH) stated its plans to inoculate 100,000 to 200,000 individuals daily once vaccine supplies become stable. But from the 7 million vaccine doses received by the country so far, over 3 million have only been administered nationwide. A tweet from ABS-CBN Data Analytics Head Edson Guido two days ago (May 19, 2021) further brought to light how far the country is from herd immunity. He stated that at the rate we are going, the 70-million target will be achieved in 3 years, and not this year. “We still have a long way to go,” Guido tweeted. “To reach the target of 70 million by end of 2021, the average should be around 600,000 daily. That’s 5.5 times the current pace. We need more vaccines.”
(screenshot from Twitter)
Adding to the challenges of vaccine supply and vaccination processes is the sensitivity of some vaccine brands. To ensure their safety and efficacy, they need to be maintained in very low temperatures in every step of the way— from their arrival in the airport to storage and delivery. With the country’s limited infrastructure especially in remote areas, vaccine quality may suffer, and along with it, the health of many Filipinos.
Fr. Nic in the Providence College laboratory (Courtesy: Providence College)
Developing a Different COVID-19 Vaccine
Such issues are what a new type of COVID-19 vaccine hopes to resolve. Fr. Nicanor “Nic” Austriaco, who is developing this product, has taken his cue from oral vaccines such as the one for polio. “It’s not unusual to have oral vaccines,” he explained. “In the Philippines, we have 110 million people in 7,000 islands, and we have to bring the vaccine to them. Right now, all the (COVID-19) vaccines require very cold refrigerators. I want to develop a vaccine that is shelf-stable. In other words, you can put it on the shelf without the need for refrigeration, and it would still last.”
Biology and theology are Fr. Nic’s fields of expertise, having been trained in molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute Technology (MIT) in the U.S. more than two decades ago. Currently, he is a professor at both the Providence College in Rhode Island and our very own University of Santo Tomas. He is also a fellow at OCTA Research, an independent and interdisciplinary research group of faculty members that has been providing pandemic data for the country.
The vaccine Fr. Nic and his team are developing is yeast-based, with a shelf life of two years even without refrigeration. “The idea is that we take probiotic yeast, which you can buy in drugstores, and we genetically engineered it. We changed it so that it will produce the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This spike protein is the part of the virus that Pfizer, Moderna , AstraZeneca, Gamaleya all put into your body. So, we are just changing the delivery system.” The yeast, which could be drunk or taken in pill form, would stay in the intestines and produce the spike protein, which would trigger the body’s immune system.
Despite the promising benefits of this oral COVID-19 vaccine, Fr. Nic warned that it may take 6 months to a year before it can be released to the public. “This is why I call this a second- generation vaccine. The expectation is we’re going to be vaccinated nearly every year or nearly every other year. So to save the Philippine government [from spending] billions of pesos to be paid every year to foreign companies, we’re trying to develop a vaccine for the Philippines that is relatively cheap but safe and efficacious.”
Fr. Nic named the oral vaccine development as Project Pag-asa, precisely because he hopes to give hope to Filipinos, especially the poor. “I read a story about a Filipino jeepney driver who lost his job, who lost his house because of the first ECQ, and I realized that we have to protect the poor—the poorest kababayans. The first-generation ones will be great for them but if we do this every year for a long time, we need a vaccine that would be easily accessible to our poor kababayans.”
Like other vaccine developers, Fr. Nic’s team is developing two versions of the oral vaccine—one for the original COVID-19 strain, and one for the other variants. Regarding questions on the oral vaccine dosage, Fr. Nic said that it would depend on the clinical trial. Once the yeast is developed, the first step is to do animal testing. “Once the animal testing is done— if that is successful— then we have to go to clinical trials in the Philippines. So, there are still many steps that we need to do before we can make it available to the public.”
Developing the COVID-19 oral vaccine (Courtesy: Providence College)
Importance of Vaccination
Fr. Nic has already been vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine in the States. He was part of the priority list because he resided in a community of priests, which had elderly members. “The side effects can be rough, especially after the second dose. I was very sick for about one day. I had headache, body ache, fatigue, chills for many hours. But after that day, it was gone.”
Still, Fr. Nic reiterated that the sick feeling after vaccination is a sign that the vaccine is working. “It’s your body fighting the vaccine already. That is why the second dose is worse than the first dose. The older you are, the easier the side effects, If you are young, you can be really, really, really sick because you have a stronger immune system. So, the immune system fights back stronger and you feel sick more— but only for one day. And if you had COVID before, especially if you didn’t know you had COVID, the first dose would be harder than the second dose.”
As for those hesitating to get vaccinated, Fr. Nic said, “I’m one of them who have been vaccinated against COVID-19. I can now walk around the city. I can get on a plane. I can visit other people. It is the quickest way to end the pandemic, right? I am sure you are tired of ECQ. You are tired of lockdown. The only way we can stop this is if all the Filipino adults—70 million adults choose to be vaccinated.”
For Fr. Nic, vaccination is not only a self-protective measure, but also a caring decision.
“Why do we get vaccinated? We get vaccinated to protect ourselves, but more importantly, to protect those around us who are more vulnerable to the disease. When I was being injected by the second dose, I thought ah, my mom is safe now. I was so concerned about my mother’s well-being. She’s a senior citizen, so every time I visit her [in Manila], I was worried that I would secretly bring the virus to her. Now, I know she is safe because I am vaccinated. We are vaccinated not only to protect ourselves but also to protect our parents and our grandparents. Those are really important to understand, especially in the Philippines.”
* interview by Blueberrie Recto
Most of the children living in this era have forgotten the historical significance of our native alphabet. Thus, its cultural importance and possible inclusion in the current curriculum should be considered. In the pre-colonial period, baybayin was the writing script of Filipinos living in different islands.
Baybayin for dalandan, pinya and atis (photo from baybayinart)
Pre-Colonial Period: The Birth of Baybayin
In ancient times, people living in the Philippines did not have any kind of writing system. Instead, they relied on oral tradition or word-of-mouth as a way of communication. However, in the 13th century, Malaysian and Indonesian cultures influenced the writing system in the Philippines, leading us to discover baybayin.
Primarily, baybayin was used by inhabitants in the Luzon and Visayas regions. As an alpha-syllabic script, its specific characters can either be a single consonant or vowel, or a syllable. In an interview with Roy Cagalingan, a historian from the Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino, he formally defined baybayin as the “sinaunang alpabeto ng ating mga ninuno na naglalaman ng tatlong patinig at labing-apat na katinig, na nagmula sa salitang baybay ng mga Tagalog, na nangangahulugang lupain sa tabi ng dagat”. (Our ancestors’ ancient alphabet consist of three vowels and fourteen consonants. Baybayin is derived from the Tagalog word which means land beside the sea.) This was the same observation Spanish soldier and lawyer Antonio de Morga made during his visit to the Philippines in1609.
The extent of baybayin as the Philippines’ official writing system varied from island to island from the 16th to the early 17th centuries. However, in 1521, Italian explorer Antonio Pigafetta wrote that the people of the Visayas were illiterate. But upon the arrival of baybayin in 1567, the Spanish Governor-General Miguel López de Legazpi reported that “They (the Visayans) have their letters and characters like those of the Malays, from whom they learned them.”
In his memoirs written in the 1600s, de Morga stated that natives from Luzon and surrounding islands wrote splendidly using the native script, and that only a few did not know how to write well. In contrast to Morga’s statement, American historian William Henry Scott discovered some records stating that natives did not know how to write, even the datus or chieftains. He also made an even more surprising discovery: “A few years later (after the Spaniards sent a baybayin letter to Borneo), Tagalog conspirators hoping to expel their Spanish invaders communicated among themselves and their Bornean allies in (baybayin) writing, and even sent a letter to Japan. Naturally, none of this correspondence has survived, but the Spanish translation of a Bikolano letter En Letras Tagala, which contains a scathing condemnation of Spanish misconduct, is preserved in Franciscan archives in Madrid.”
According to Cagalingan, “Kung pag-aaralan natin ang baybayin, siguro kung sa personal na karanasan, hindi mahirap lalo na kung tututukan mo siya ng kalahating araw pero kung kakabisaduhin ‘yong mga pasikot-sikot, hindi kakayanin ng isang araw at medyo mahirap”. (Based on my experience, studying baybayin is not difficult if you focus on it. But understanding its nuances will take more than a day.)
Spanish Period: The Emergence of Abecedario (1521 – 1898)
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
When Spain colonized the Philippines, the emergence of Latin alphabet deferred to baybayin, leading to its eventual disuse. The Latin script and the Spanish alphabet were introduced to Catholicized Filipinos. This foreign alphabelt called abecedario had 28 to 32 letters.
But after encountering an enormous number of native languages, the Spaniards felt compelled to identify the archipelago’s most common languages in order to communicate with the Filipinos. After learning these local languages, the missionaries were required to teach Spanish. This is why the Doctrina Christiana, a book on Catholic Catechism, was published in both Tagalog and Spanish languages.
Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels
American to Commonwealth Period (1949 – 1960)
With the end of Spanish rule and the introduction of American-style public education in the Philippines, Filipinos were introduced to the English language and its 26-letter alphabet. Both the English-based education and Philippine nationalism threatened the use of abecedario. Following the establishment of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1937, the government ordered the adoption of a Tagalog-based national language as well as the creation of its dictionary and grammar book. In 1939, writer and former Senator Lope K. Santos developed Ang Balarila ng Wikang Pambansa, resulting in a reduction of the 32-letter abecedario to 20 letters.
According to Cagalingan, “Katulad nga ng hangarin ni Lope K. Santos na ilabas ang balarila noong 1940, kung titignan natin, may hawig pa sa baybayin yung abakada na ginawa niya na naglalaman ng dalawampung titik”. (If we look at the 20-letter abakada introduced by Lope K. Santos in 1940, it still resembles the baybayin.) He also added, “Kung titignan naman natin yung ginawa niya, nakabatay siya sa reporma ni Rizal noong 1899. (If we are going to study his work, it’s based on Rizal’s reform in 1899.) In abakada, each letter corresponds to a syllable –which is the opposite of the English or Spanish pronunciation.
Abakada remained the national language’s alphabet from 1940 to 1976. During that time, concerns were raised about the validity of Tagalog as the foundation of the official language, as majority of Filipinos spoke other native languages.
The 1973 Constitution introduced a revised definition of the national language, renaming it Filipino, stating that it is a developing language.
The Institute of the National Language approved the 1976 Filipino Orthography Reform, which resulted in a change in the alphabet. Under DECS memorandum order 194, 11 letters – C, CH, F, J, LL, Q, RR, V, X, and Z – made a comeback in the revised Filipino alphabet, reflecting the other Filipino languages that still used those letters.
The 1987 Filipino Alphabet
After more revisions, the Filipino Alphabet was again published with only 28 letters with the inclusion of “ng” and “ñ”. The 1987 Constitution ordered the preservation and propagation of the native local language to protect its historical significance.
In conclusion, the evolution of the Filipino Alphabet proves that language is always evolving. As Catalagan said, “Mas magandang sabihin na ang ebolusyon ng ating alpabeto ay isang simbolo na nagpapatunay na pleksible ang hangarin ng mga sumakop sa atin, upang mapaganda at mapalawak ang ating bokabularyo”. (It is better to say that the evolution of our alphabet symbolizes the flexible desires of our colonizers to improve and widen our vocabulary.) He concluded, “Nagbabago ang wika dahil nagbabago din ang simoy ng panahon kung kaya’t nagiging kasangkapan ito sa pagbuo ng isang bansa.” (Language adapts to the passage of time, and is instrumental in nation building.)
Baybayin: The Lost Filipino Script. (n.d.). Amateurlanguager.Tumblr.Com. Retrieved May 14, 2021, from https://amateurlanguager.tumblr.com/tagged/language.-power.-narrative.
Tan, N. (2014, August 22). Evolution of the Filipino alphabet. www.rappler.Com. https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/iq/evolution-filipino-alphabet