The world is still in fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in Wuhan, China some time around December 2019. The virus did not spare the Philippines. As of May 31, 2020, there are already 18086 already. The first case recorded in the country according to the Department of Health (DOH) is a Chinese woman, recorded last January 30, 2020, while the country’s first local transmission was announced on March 5, 2020 in Metro Manila. The Philippines was placed by President Rodrigo Duterte under state of public health emergency due to COVID-19 on March 9, 2020 and imposed the community quarantine of Metro Manila starting March 15, 2020. Two days later, the whole Luzon was placed under Enhanced Community Quarantine until April 30 but was later extended until May 15, 2020.

To address the concerns of this pandemic, the President formed the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Disease (IATF) by virtue of Executive Order No. 168, series of 2014. This inter-sectoral collaboration must establish preparedness and ensure government response to assess, monitor, contain, control, and prevent the spread of potential epidemic in the country. One of their response in the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 is the imposition of community quarantine, initially in specific regions, but was applied eventually to the whole country.

According to IATF, these are the phases of community quarantine imposed in the country, from most stringent to most relaxed: Enhanced Community (ECQ), Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ), General Community Quarantine (GCQ), and Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ), with MECQ and MGCQ as transitional phases to ECQ and to the  “New Normal,” respectively.  On May 13, 2020, Laguna was placed under MECQ alongside Metro Manila and Cebu City, while the rest of the country are now under GCQ. The Agency [1] defines “new normal” as the emerging behaviors, situations, and minimum public health standards that will be institutionalized in common or routine practices and remain even after the pandemic while the disease is not totally eradicated through means such as widespread immunization. These will include actions that will become our “second nature” as well as policies such as prohibitions of large gatherings. They furthered that areas where no community quarantine is in place can be considered as being under the new normal. This means that while there is no cure nor a vaccine, we need live in this new normal. Though there are already a promise of cure and vaccine from various countries, these might not be out in the market for the next few months as they need to undergo various clinical trials.

While we continue to be players in this “waiting game,” it is quite helpful to know specific things that we need to do in the new normal phase. We mention here some protocols, as advised by DOH [2], and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) [3], that must be observed in our daily lives, most especially when it comes to our workplace under the said circumstance. In all phases of community quarantine mentioned earlier, including new normal phase, minimum public health standards must be carried out. These include: (a) safety protocols such as “No Facemask, No Entry,” frequent sanitation and handwashing and not touching surfaces and face; (b) safe distancing which includes maintaining at least 1-meter distance with other people, reconfigured workspaces, markers in public spaces, and refraining from reporting to work if showing symptoms; and (c) private companies’ return-to-work protocols including work from home as the default work setting, providing private shuttles to workplace, and antibody testing and confirmatory PCR test results for COVID-19.  In order to reduce COVID-19 deaths in the country, DOH builds on these four COVID-19 mitigation objectives: (1) Increase physical and mental resilience; (2) Reduce transmission; (3) Reduce contact; and (4) Reduce duration and infection. This was also the basis of DTI and DOLE in suggesting the interim work protocols. We list here some of these additional safety and health standards concerning workplaces and schools, aside from the minimum public health standards mentioned earlier, that must be implemented.

A. Increase physical and mental resilience

    1. Practice respiratory etiquette at all times.
    2. All workers must strive to stay healthy by eating nutritious and well-cooked food, drinking plenty of fluids, avoiding alcoholic beverages, having adequate rest and at least 8 hours of sleep, and exercising regularly.
    3. Companies are enjoined to provide free medicines and vitamins and must provide referral for workers needing counseling or presenting with mental health concerns.
    4. Elderly, individuals with underlying conditions, and pregnant woman may be asked not to physically report to work, while providing them with alternate work arrangements.

B. Reduce transmission

    1. Prior to entrance in buildings or workplaces, all employers and workers shall have their temperature checked and recorded in the health symptoms questionnaire. Moreover, alcohols or sanitizers must be sprayed to both hands, and if practicable, disinfectant foot baths must be provided. Similarly, teachers must subject all students to temperature checks prior to entering classrooms.
    2. All work areas and frequently handled objects such as doorknobs and handles, shall be cleaned and disinfected regularly, at least once every two hours. Sanitizers shall be made available in corridors, conference areas, elevators, stairways and areas where workers pass. Student and teachers must perform regular handwashing by allotting specific period of time for this.
    3. Eating in communal areas is discouraged. If eating in individual work areas is not possible, the employer shall ensure that physical distancing is maintained. It is also discouraged that workers engage in conversations with mask off during meal times. Canteens and kitchens should be cleaned and disinfected regularly.

C. Reduce contact

    1. Prolonged face-to-face interaction between workers and with clients are discouraged. Videoconferencing shall be utilized for lengthy discussions among workers. School and social activities that require close contact or where physical distancing is not possible are also discouraged.
    2. Office tables should be arranged in order to maintain proper physical distancing and barriers may be provided between tables. Workstation layout should provide for unidirectional movement in walkways.
    3. Platforms for online learning must be provided, and teaching methods and schedules must be adjusted to allow for physical distancing.

D. Reduce duration of infection

    1. In the event that a worker is suspected as having COVID-19, the worker shall immediately proceed to the isolation area designated in the workplace and never remove his/her mask. Company protocols for transport of the suspect COVID-19 cases and for PCR testing should be in place including providing ambulance conduction. Workplace shall be decontaminated. Workers present in the work area with the suspect COVID-19 worker must undergo a 14-day home quarantine.
    2. In the event that a worker is sick or has fever but is not suspected to have COVID-19, the employer must advise the worker to take prudent measures to limit the spread of communicable diseases. School administrators must provide alternative arrangements for students, teachers, and personnel with flu-like symptoms.

The new normal will require a new mindset, i.e., letting go of our old ways, being more aware our self and surroundings, and being more cautious with our daily routines. We cannot just get inside our buildings without checkpoints, which means we need to get by our offices earlier than usual. Class hours might be longer to provide for the routine temperature check. Close-contact activities and games during classes will also fade. Class size may now be reduced to half. More so, we may not be able to take in additional students in our sections. We cannot have the usual chit-chat during lunch time or coffee talks in the afternoon. Social activities may be rarely seen. In short, we cannot do all our old ways. This may not be very easy for all but if we are properly guided of what to do, understand why we are doing this, and we see models who are doing it, it may not really be a hard thing to do. By living with the new normal and with hope for a cure and vaccine coming soon, we can start to build a safer Philippines and stronger Filipinos. 

So, can we celebrate the birthday of our co-worker during the new normal? Of course, Yes! In an open area, one seat apart, no boodle fight, and no traditional blowing of candle. That is the new normal.

References:

[1] Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Disease Omnibus Guidelines on the Implementation of Community Quarantine in the Philippines, May 15, 2020, https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph

[2] Department of Health Guidelines on the Risk-Based Public Health Standards for COVID-19 Mitigation, DOH Administrative Order 2020-0015, April 27, 2020

[3] DTI and DOLE Interim Guidelines on Workplace Prevention and Control of COVID, April 30, 2020

(JMT Lampos)