I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening. – Larry King

I try my best to keep our program Agenda an “Open Mic” experience for guest interviewees in the belief that if you allow guests to talk freely, they will get the momentum they need or warm up on the program to the point that they answer almost everything you want to know with very little effort. Many people in media are in such a hurry to compress everything and everybody into a few minutes or under an hour but completely forget that being in the public eye or in front of the camera is not second nature to others. As a result, the interview ends up looking rushed and chopped up. Better to go home with two good bits of useful information than an hour of “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing” (from Macbeth).

The other problem is when the interview is totally transactional and not relational. Many scoops or rare interviews were given by royalty and influential people to people and media institutions they trusted, and not because the interviewee was popular. The good ones bear in mind that their guests generally are also responsible or accountable for what they say as well as subject to limitations or concerns about what or how much they say. While many try to ask what they know are dead-end questions that will never get the answer they want, the smarter interviewers don’t waste precious air time and focus on other angles.

Yesterday I did exactly what Larry King reminds himself to do when I interviewed DOH Undersecretary Ma. Rosario Vergeire regarding the current state of affairs of public health.

When I repeated what Senator Sonny Angara said that the government is only testing less than one percent of all COVID-19 cases to track Delta variant cases, Usec. Vergeire stated that the issue has been raised by LGU officials, who complained that the tests were so few and took too long to confirm or report to affected LGUs. But she reminded the audience and the public that whatever the reach and speed of the genome sequencing or Delta variant tracking may be, all LGUs and health workers are supposed to treat the suspected cases regardless of COVID type or variant. Yes, the tests results may or will come much later but it does not change the treatment and safety protocol. The genome testing is most helpful in getting a profile of a variant, its location, direction and speed of transmission to be used for forming an informed decision and policies to fight the spread of the virus.

With regards to the question of whether we have “community transmission” of the Delta variant, Usec. Vergeire explained that it is a careful, cautious process of determination based on scientific determination and that the decision to announce such conditions or status has serious international consequence or repercussions. Such declarations or labels are used as basis by other countries and international organizations to determine if a country would consequently be declared as high risk, moderate or low risk. These in turn could affect the mobility of the country’s citizens such as our OFWs, students, etc. who might be barred from entering certain countries or be required to undergo extra or stringent quarantine protocols. While some local residents might want to raise the alarm regarding the surge of infections, talking or suggesting there is a “community transmission” is not simply about numbers.

As far as the surge is concerned, Usec. Vergeire reminded people that aside from the Delta variant there are still the original COVID-19, the Alpha variant and the Beta variant, all of which are still present and contagious and explain the reason for higher numbers.

When you think about it, two reasons that people and government officials don’t talk about are that before the surge, the government eased up on restrictions, even allowing kids to go outdoors. There is also the rainy season and the southwest monsoon that forced us indoors, seeking shelter in crowded places during thunderstorms and rains.

In the end, highlighting the idea of “community transmission” may give people something to talk about but it ultimately becomes pointless because if there is or was one, it would be too late to do anything about it!

On a more personal note, I had to ask Usec. Vergeire why DOH officials did not seem to be gung-ho or pushing for more funding to build new public hospitals all over the country. Vergeire explained that building new hospitals was certainly in the future plans of the DOH, perhaps in 2022 or further. But in the meantime, what made more sense was to upgrade all primary or level 1 hospitals in the country by bringing in as much equipment and personnel because these hospitals are already on the ground.

As I listened to the Usec. I realized that even if we only equipped existing barangay health centers and clinics with 1 or 2 COVID clinics inclusive of oxygenators, tents, etc., we would have thousands of COVID beds nationwide in only a fraction of the time it takes to legislate, fund, design, build, staff and then operate hospitals. If we follow through by upgrading level 1 hospitals, that again would greatly lessen the challenge.

Still, there is no denying the fact that the country needs more hospitals, doctors, nurses and technicians, whether there is a pandemic or not. We cannot all be focused on COVID-19. Someone has to be assigned to Build Build Build our health care infrastructure!

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