Monday, June 08, 2009

Risk and responsibility

This is my column today.

Traffic along Taft Avenue was particularly heavier than usual Wednesday afternoon last week. There was an unusually big volume of pedestrians around the area between Qurino Avenue and Vito Cruz street and a gazillion of private cars seemed to be desperately trying to get into the area all at the same time.

The reason: De La Salle-Manila (more popularly referred to as De La Salle University; actually, the De La Salle schools have long instituted a branding mechanism that required each school to be known simply by its location thus, De La Salle-Manila, De La Salle-Greenhills, etc.) closed down the Manila campus for 10 days and sent everyone home. Even the La Salle brothers had to pack up and evacuate to the De La Salle-Greenhills campus.

Students spilled all over the adjoining streets. Parents and drivers scrambled to pick students up pronto. As most everyone knows by now, one De La Salle-Manila foreign student was confirmed to have had AH1N1. Two other students another foreign student who was the dorm-mate of the first student and another Filipino student were subsequently confirmed to have been infected with the H1N1 virus.

Classes at the nearby College where I teach in the evenings were not suspended, though. This was because the College did not have a confirmed case of H1N1 infection. But as can be expected, this did not stop students from being absent. On the same day that De La Salle-Manila suspended classes, my students were fidgeting in their seats, complaining that their parents were sending them endless text messages urging them to go home. I had to tell my students that if they wanted to go home to assuage their parents’ anxiety, they could be excused from my class. We also had to give way to a quick discussion on facts and fallacies about the H1N1 virus.

I found it quite exasperating to note that many parents were panicking over unverified reports of an outbreak in certain schools (including at the College where I teach, which was totally false) while conveniently forgetting to practice responsible behavior themselves. A quick check among my students revealed that quite a number of them spent summer vacation abroad with their parents. Parents were worrying about exposing their children to the H1N1 virus here in the country where there has only been a few confirmed cases of H1N1 infection while they just brought their children to countries where the infections were in far greater numbers? Go figure.

Just as exasperating was the realization that many among my students also had one or both parents who just got back from traveling abroad, all of whom did not subject themselves to self-quarantine. In short, people were worrying about having their children exposed to the H1N1 virus at school while conveniently forgetting that they themselves just got exposed to the virus abroad and therefore posed a greater risk of spreading the infection themselves.

Such is the nature of panic. It often robs people of the capacity for rational thinking.

I recognize though that the risks of H1N1 infections in academic communities are greater. This is because close social contacts are unavoidable in schools, the learning process being predominantly characterized by active social interactions. The H1N1 virus also happens to be particularly contagious as it can be spread through social contact. In this context, closing down schools where there is a confirmed case of H1N1 makes sense.

However, simply and unilaterally closing down schools cannot be the sole extent of our collective response. We can’t possibly keep on doing the same thing for every single time there is a confirmed case of H1N1. Postponing classes by a few weeks this time around seems like a good precautionary measure. But what happens in a worse case scenario where subsequent cases of H1N1 infection are confirmed? Do we close down schools every single time this happens?

And what about offices, churches, malls, restaurants, gyms, etc? There are many other venues where social interactions do happen. We can’t possibly shut all of these down.
The obvious solution is to promote responsible behavior among the citizenry so that further infections are reduced significantly. Just as self-control is the best form of control, being personally responsible for one’s well being is the best way to reduce vulnerability to H1N1 infection. This translates into two main courses of actions.

First, everyone should make it a personal responsibility to protect themselves from being infected. This means taking all the necessary precautions such as constant washing of hands, avoiding social contacts that comprise high risk to infection such as holding hands or social kissing, etc. The second one is to promote the concept of social responsibility. Citizens who have been potentially exposed to the H1N1 virus, such as those who have just traveled abroad or had social contact with someone infected with the virus, should be duty-bound to undergo self- quarantine.

But to make this happen, we need to put in place mechanisms that empower citizens to be able to practice responsible behaviors. Government must put in place guidelines that enable and ennoble citizens to do this. It is not enough to tell people that they should stay home we must make sure that doing so does not penalize them.

For example, education officials must issue guidelines that compel school authorities to lift penalties against absenteeism committed by faculty members, students, and even administrative staff of educational institutions who take it upon themselves to undergo self-quarantine.

The appropriate government agencies and the private sector must come together to craft guidelines that allow employees and workers who are undergoing self-quarantine to continue being paid during the period. I know this translates into additional expenses, but in the larger scheme of things, that’s a small price we have to pay for ensuring that we are able to contain infections. Surely, paying the wages of someone who is on self-quarantine is wiser course of action compared to the threat of having widespread infections in the workplace. I am aware that such a mechanism is open to abuse, but we can always put in place the appropriate guidelines.

It is also time to pursue a more aggressive, comprehensive, and empowering information and education campaign on H1N1. The problem is that most of the media coverage on the H1N1 pandemic has been focused on the statistics covering confirmed cases of infections, which either lull people into a false sense of security (the numbers are still low) or sow panic and fear (it’s here!).

And quite unfortunately, some companies have capitalized on H1N1 pandemic by promoting products that supposedly protect people from getting infected. For example, one drug company has been promoting a vaccine, which supposedly protects people from flu strains that are similar to H1N1.

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