"The mayor is a systems thinker, a rarity among our politicians whose capacity for right thinking is almost too often outranked by their capability to talk nonsense."
The people of Baguio could not have chosen a better chief executive in last year’s elections than Benjamin Magalong.
I have been a frequent visitor of the summer capital since I was a toddler. Later, in my sophomore high school year, I began an annual December trip to Baguio for a Student Catholic Action leadership program at St. Louis University on the upper part of Session Road, which was then such a delightful street to stroll on. I have since made it a point to be in Baguio and the highlands every December, up to the time my kids finished grade school.
I had planned to retire in Baguio, and so as early as the 80s, I bought a small lot in Dominican Hill where I dreamed of eventually building an A-frame cottage with a rear balcony where on a clear day I could see glimpses of the sea off La Union. I haven’t built it, and have moved my retirement dreams toward other places.
I have been a depressed witness to how the city has deteriorated, from the commercialization of the once-lovely Burnham Park, to the monstrosity that is the SM shopping mall built atop the hill where once stood the Pines Hotel, to the decay of Session Road and the death of little quaint eateries surrendering to fastfood joints with no local character, plus the horrendous traffic and the proliferation of hillside slums.
And I make no apologies for observing that the people of Baguio have always elected mayors who do not know how to run, let alone preserve their city as the nation’s summer capital.
Up until they elected Benjie Magalong mayor in May of 2019.
The first-time politician has proven himself not only equal to the task. In my book, he has excelled over every other local executive in these trying days of a health pandemic that has terrorized this country like no other, save perhaps the Second World War when I was not yet in existence.
Magalong makes Baguio proud, and after the crisis abates, will no doubt resurrect his city from the ruins of disrepair that have worsened over years and years of neglect by unworthy political leadership.
Having been a decorated police officer, retiring as chief of the CIDG, and a product of the premier military academy located in his city, Magalong is a systems thinker, a rarity among our politicians whose capacity for right thinking is almost too often outranked by their capability to talk nonsense.
Before any other city mayor thought of quarantining his jurisdiction from the oncoming invasion of disease, Magalong canceled the yearly hegira of domestic tourism—the flower festival called Panagbenga, to the immediate consternation of city residents and businessmen whose bread and butter is tourism. This was in early February, when Wuhan’s virus had yet to darken our country clouds.
Thereafter, he closed the city from visitors entering or from residents leaving, even before the national government declared a lockdown.
His health officials began testing, using rapid test kits donated by two businessmen friends, and CT scan analyzers to detect whether a COVID-suspect person had damaged lungs, cognizant that the virus kills through respiratory system damage. Magalong adopted a new diagnostic system by Huawei to screen probable COVID-19 cases. Via Huawei Cloud, CT scans were cross-analyzed with the data base of similarly-afflicted patients in China to determine the extent of damage to the respiratory system. Thereafter, nasal and throat swabs using the PCR kits were made for confirmation.
Having preliminary diagnoses, they had basis for extensive contact tracing. The mayor explained to the patients the need to shed their right to privacy, to help in effective tracking. Relying on instincts and knowledge honed in his previous life as a police officer, Magalong taught health professionals investigator’s skills.
“These are abnormal times, so we have to use out-of-the-box solutions,” explained the mayor to a broadcast journalist who marveled that as of Holy Week, the city has had no new infections for 13 days, a feat no other major population center in the country had achieved.
Tracing was so effective that, for instance, as many as 67 contacts had been traced to their 15th case. If our DOH had tested early on, and used the LGUs and the police machinery to trace thereafter, imagine how many thousands upon thousands it could have tracked. As it happened, even placing purchase orders for test kits and PPEs were done by our DOH only after the similarly action-challenged WHO declared a pandemic. By this time the whole world was scrambling for the same, and supplies had become hard to come by.
Thank God Mayor Magalong does not always listen to the DOH, and uses both common sense and systematic thinking to get things done.
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Finally, the IATF on Easter Sunday has decided to make it mandatory to publicize the identities of COVID-19 afflicted persons in order to strengthen contact tracing efforts.
I made a suggestion to a high government official last March 23 via a text message, hoping that it would be considered by the IATF. There is, after all, no stigma that should attach to an unfortunate victim of the novel coronavirus, and public identification would alert all those who may have had contact with the person, enough to come forward and have himself tested.
Not having gotten any reaction after several days, I relayed the same suggestion to Senator Ping Lacson who came out with a statement on March 28 asking COVID-19 patients to have themselves identified so that even at the barangay level, their contacts may be easily traced. Some congressmen likewise supported the move. Thereafter, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and the Philippine Medical Association came out with a joint statement supporting the lifting of the privacy rights of patients, in the interest of the greater community good.
Thank God for little mercies.
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And just before submitting this article, I got a summary of the late-night-until-past-midnight remarks of the President before some members of his cabinet, where he approved, despite the intransigence of DOH-FDA, the procurement and use of rapid test kits for use together with Duque’s “gold standard”—the polymerase chain reaction test which takes much longer to produce results.
The President’s instructions were quite clear, and Secretary Carlito Galvez’s statement after mentioned 900,000 rapid test kits on top of the 900,000 PCR test kits already ordered.
Finally, logic overrules stubborn intransigence bereft of reason. Better late than never, though at what cost?
This writer, among many others, has been wondering what elixir prevents the DOH-FDA from approving of the use of rapid instruments ideal for mass testing despite their preponderant use in other countries far more advanced in medical science than ours.
Just a warning, though: we should use those kits which test IgG and IgM, and not some earlier inferior products, some of which have even been endorsed by the PROC Embassy. IgM is the first antibody that reacts to fight the virus that enters the patient, the body’s first line of defense. After a certain period, the presence of the IgG antibody would indicate that the virus has been neutralized, and therefore the patient can go back to normal life, immune as he has become to the virus. This is how I understand the very instructive video prepared by Dr. Minguita Padilla of the UP-PGH and St. Luke’s BGC that she has uploaded and is now viral.
We should thank Secretary Sonny Dominguez and Joey Concepcion, who despite not being medical professionals, are more logical thinkers than the jurassics in our health system, and who realize that unless we act with urgency, our economy will be doomed, and the suffering of our people prolonged needlessly. Somehow they got through to the President who then acted in spite of the medical dinosaurs.