How did Batanes manage to remain almost COVID-free?
MANILA, Philippines — During this global pandemic, the national government and every Filipino citizen relied heavily on technology to remain informed and safe. However, one province has successfully kept its residents safe even with limited access to technology.
Batanes, one of the smallest and most isolated provinces in the country, was able to contain the pandemic even with its very limited manpower and resources. Since the start of the pandemic, the province has only reported three COVID-19 cases.
In an online forum on Friday, Dr. Noel Bernardo, Doctor to the Barrios and the incident commander of the Sabtang COVID-19 Task Force, detailed how the province remained almost free of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
Fighting the pandemic with information
Bernardo shared that compared to other hospitals and health facilities in the country, they are falling behind with having “only one level one hospital serving all three islands of the province.”
According to guidelines set by the Department of Health, hospitals in the Philippines are categorized into three levels.
Level 1 hospitals are those that can provide basic necessary health services. However, these facilities do not have ICUs (intensive care units) and are only for patients who require minor care and supervision.
For critically-ill patients, as well as those who are required to see a specialist, they are advised to go to a Level 2 hospital. Level 3 hospitals meanwhile offer complete services. It also has special facilities for physical rehabilitation and dialysis treatment. Physicians specializing in medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, and gynecology, and surgery are also present in hospitals under this classification.
Based on the 2018 data by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), there are a total of 17,246 individuals residing in Batanes. However, Bernardo said that at the start of the pandemic, there was only one mechanical ventilator available for the province’s entire population.
“If you have two severe patients, we have to choose who will get the ventilator,” he explained.
He later told the Inquirer.net that there are three or more mechanical ventilators currently available for their COVID-19 patients.
“We have been trying our best to increase our capacity since 3 months ago,” he said.
The province’s logistics also made it more difficult to receive necessary medical supplies during the pandemic.
“We do not have easy access to PPEs (personal protective equipment), medicines, and other supplies. We rely on cargo vessels which travel to our province twice a month,” he said.
“Even if we allot enough resources to purchase them, we cannot get them immediately,” he added.
They also don’t have the facilities to test COVID patients. Bernardo said they usually have to send the swab samples to Manila or Cagayan.
However, all three confirmed cases were treated in provincial quarantine facilities.
Compared to the situation in Metro Manila, where resources and information are available for its residents, Batanes is really in a tight predicament. So, how come they don’t have many cases?
Bernardo explained that their local government and health care workers have decided to enforce the necessary precautions even before the national government had declared lockdowns.
“When we heard about the COVID in January, even without orders from the national government, we already started putting up border controls,” he said.
He also emphasized that having an informed and educated people can be a “weapon” against the pandemic.
“From January until such time the (national) government declared lockdown, we went to our communities, schools, and workplaces to conduct (information) caravans. We do not have a cellular data connection in our community until now so we really need to personally be there and inform the general public,” Bernardo said.
He said that by the time the national government imposed strict measures, the Ivatans (residents of Batanes) were already educated about COVID-19 and were ready.
He also noted that even though there were still fear and anxiety among the residents, no one panicked since the people trusted the government and health workers.
“Information is not just for scientific and evidence-based decision making. In times of hardship uncertainty and fear, access to information keeps our community afloat by being a channel of solidarity, support, guidance, and empathy,” Bernardo said.
What they learned
“Health pandemic response in the community level rests on the premise that all people are equal with basic rights that must be protected. Communities that are well informed about the situation and that all health services are inclusive, accessible, and responsive,” said Bernardo, sharing about the things he and the government of Batanes learned during the pandemic.
“If we have key decision-makers and frontliners who trample on these rights freedoms; who deny us of our the opportunity to air our concerns and contribute to the operation; and when we have leaders who keep us in the dark by not providing timely accurate and relevant info, we are missing the chance to better respond to the pandemic,” he added.
Bernardo added that leaders should focus more on informing their constituents rather than showing how good they are. He added that the issue should be addressed at the grassroots level.
“If we do not address it, people will start to not follow rules, to disrespect the frontliners, and discriminate against the patients. We should never let this happen, more so at the national level,” Bernardo said.
Call to bridge the gaps
Bernardo reminded lawmakers to be mindful of the small communities, such as Batanes, that rely on the important information and data regarding COVID-19.
“We are already isolated enough. With this info, we are hoping this will bridge the gap (between the national government and small communities),” he stated.
He said their local government, as well as the health workers, are willing to work with lawmakers and provide any information they will need to help the community.
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