Event hosted by: Thomson Reuters Manila

Notes from Dr. Arnold Tabun, National Auditor, Philippine College of Occupational Medicine:

  • How does Philippine culture influence (negatively or positively) safety protocols or the ways we ought to behave in the new normal? In general, the Philippines has not yet developed a “safety culture” as evidenced by daily scenes of people jay-walking, diving counter-flow, riding without helmets or seatbelts on, spitting and urinating in public, throwing trash in the streets… among others. This has an overall negative influence to safety protocols. The safety culture is important in the new normal which is a lifestyle that incorporates infection prevention and control (IPC) measures. In terms of COVID-19 safety protocols, we have both negative and positive cultural influence. For example, it helps that Filipinos need to take a daily bath and that we have different footwear for outside and for indoor use. However we have practices that, although good under normal conditions, increase the risk for COVID infection:”mano po”, boodle fight, huge extended family gatherings, fiesta and religious events, hospitality (allowing neighbors and new acquaintances into their homes)
  • You mentioned that we have to ‘design a lifestyle that is cautious about physical human-to-human dynamics’. What will this lifestyle look like in work, school, public spaces, etc. Please elaborate. Pre-pandemic the trend was to design an open workspace: individual cubicles were replaced with shared tables without dividers to encourage social interaction. Now, these physical barriers have been brought back and reflects the general lifestyle for the new normal: less physical dynamics and transitioned to virtual interaction. This is the same for schools which have shifted to online classes. 
  • You mentioned in your talk that the new normal will require new health guidelines and legal regulations for those who own or manage properties where people converge. From your own analysis, do you have related recommendations in mind. The minimum health standards being set by DTI-DOH-DOLE are good, however, based on the finding from our site audits, one of the major gap in the IPC is more behavioral in nature i.e. protocols are in place yet people do not follow if there is no one watching. Establishments need to change their focus from mere statutory compliance and shift to a mindset of developing a “safety culture” among its constituents.With this mindset, we can expect greater enforcement of OSH protocols even if without governement regualtions. The government can also provide a balance of penalties for non-compliance and incentives to establishments with excellent Safety and Health practices. 
  • Do you think remote working will become the normal set-up, even in a post-pandemic scenario? Yes, for office based companies (not for labor-based industries: manufacturing and construction). Now that companies have seen that thier business operations were able to continue as usual even if their employees are WFH for almost a year, then it is likely that this WFH set-up can be continued post-pandemic. Are we also seeing more city dwellers move back to their provinces, given that they are now able to work remotely? Yes, but not yet a significant number. Sadly, the Philippines still has lots of rural areas with poor or no internet connection which is essential for remote work. Conversely, for companies that will gradually resume operations, you mentioned an ‘anti-social’ approach of limiting interactions. Do you think that this will significantly impact upon workplace collaboration and productivity? To clarify, the protocol intends to limit close physical interactions only but socializations and collaborations can still be done virtually. Admittedly, this requires some getting used to. What we anticipate is impact on work-life-balance and mental health which will eventually also impact an employee’s productivity.
  • How big of a shift to the ‘old normal’ do you foresee once vaccines will be made available? I foresee that a lot of people will have a false sense of security once the vaccine comes out and would therefore act as if they are immune to COVID-19. But we should lower people’s expectations of the vaccine as a way to return to the “old normal”. Individual immunity is not 100%, some people who receive the vaccine may not develop sufficient anti-bodies. Likewise, herd immunity is not achieved overnight. As such, the COVID-19 protocols should remain in place until herd immunity has been established. Based on current scientific evidence, COVID-19 may never go away even with vaccines available. The prediction is that COVID-19 will likely be similar to influenza which comes and goes at cyclic flu seasons.
  • Speaking of altered ways in which we interact with people in home or social life, how much of these will stick post-pandemic? Most likely, teleconferencing and social media will be as much a part of Filipino’s social lives as it was during the pandemic. Being an advocate of OSH, I would like to see Filipinos come out of this pandemic with a well-ingrained sense of health and safety: not spitting or urinating in public, not going to work if sick, throwing trash in the proper bins, seeking medical consult at the early signs of an illness… however, it’s too early to tell. A cultural change may take years to happen.
  • You mentioned a potential ‘roll-back in globalization’ as nations seek to be self-sufficient in strategic goods. Can you share examples of how the Philippines is becoming more self-sufficient? (e.g. Do you now see more domestic consumption and less imports? Is there a growing movement in supporting local businesses?) This statement pertains mainly to “strategic” goods such as medical supplies. (Global supply chains are a bit complex and common business sense dictates that sourcing be from the best possible inputs to meet production needs at the lowest cost – wherever those inputs come from.) As an example, before the pandemic there was only one face mask manufacturer in the Philippines. Now, there are at least 5 more manufacturers of face masks in the country. The companies repurposed their manufacturing facilities from making electronic porducts and consumer goods into medical grade face mask production to cater to the domestic market. According to DTI our local supply of face mask increased from 7 million to 25 million in May 2020.
  • Are you also seeing more Filipinos, especially older generations, become more tech-savvy, given increased reliance on technology in how we work and connect? Yes, I have seen Filipinos, including older generations, capable of doing cashless transactions, ordering online, using social media apps and scanning QR codes in malls. We may be relatively slow to adopt technology, compared to other SE Asian nations, but this is mosthly because of limited logistics.
  • Is the Philippines’ high number of COVID-19 cases correlate with our ‘high-contact’ culture?  Yes, our high-contact culture plays a part in the number of COVID cases, but it is not the only factor. Other correlates of the COVID case rate is the number of testing done, the adequacy of contact tracing and isolation. Have you seen manifestations of how our everyday behavior is in direct opposition to safety guidelines? Yes, we have certain behaviors and practices that are contradictory to the principles of infection prevention and control. For example, COVID protocols require minimal physical contact, but we have beso-beso and mano po. IPC measure: avoid crowds, but we are used to crowds – we have fiestas, we have big family reunions with boodle fights, we have big processions like for the Black Nazarene, we love comunity videokes with tagayan. IPC measure: isolation, but we go home to an extended family with 3-4 generations living in one small household. 
  • Do think that these safety measures will inevitably impact on the gestures that are hallmarks of Filipino interactions, e.g. mano po or beso-beso? Yes, particularly with the mano po. Even before the pandemic, younger generations have been observed to practice mano po less and less, especially in Metro Manila. WIth the COVID protocol of minimizing physical contact, the practice is likely to fade even further.  Do you foresee widespread public acceptance for HB 7333? No, not immediately. Acceptance will take time, after the right propaganda, and when it feels natural for us to do.

Please note that my expertise lies in Occupational Medicine (not sociology or economics) and therefore all other answers are my personal opinions based on an OSH perspective.

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