By Beting Laygo Dolor, Contributing Editor

The number of confirmed coronavirus (AKA Covid-19) cases in the Philippines went from 10 to 20 to 24 on the week of March 9.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson finally said what countless Filipinos have been thinking for weeks, if not months now: the government, specifically the Department of Health (DoH) has likely been under-reporting the number of coronavirus cases in the country.

Lacson said late last week that the DoH may be under-reporting the cases due to the insufficient number of test kits to confirm cases of the dread disease, a problem that has also been plaguing the US.

In a statement, the senior senator asked, “Do we have a sufficient number of testers to cover a decent number of our population especially in the more vulnerable areas of the country?”

The DOH initially said the number of confirmed cases in the country stood at 10 but the number ballooned to two dozen by the end of the day. One of the victims was listed as being in critical condition.

Sen. Joel Villanueva called out the Health department to be transparent in releasing data. “There should be no cover-ups,” he said.

Villanueva said the DoH “should be forthcoming with timely, transparent disclosure on cases.”

The cost of the test may also be an issue, as it ranges from PHP5,000 (about US$100) to PHP8,000 (US$160) and is not available in many places. Worst of all, less than 5,000 test kits were available.

One of the Philippines’ top infectious disease specialists, Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvana of the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital, said the issue may not be one of under-reporting, but of non-reporting.

“The more relevant question is, are we missing cases?” he asked.

Salvana noted that “the best surveillance systems in the world miss cases.”

A 10 Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines awardee, Salvana said a locally-made test kit is being validated, which would bring the cost of the test down to more affordable levels if it passes World Health Organization standards.

This is important as coronavirus is easily spread in crowded places where people live and work in close proximity to each other. Metro Manila has colonies where informal settlers live in unsanitary conditions, a fertile breeding ground for all kinds of communicable disease.

During an informal meeting over the weekend, a group of business executives and investors told the FilAm Starthat they believed under-reporting was the norm because the government did not want to cause panic.

A Filipino-American in the group said it was “statistically improbable, if not impossible” that the Philippines would have so few reported cases because of the millions of Chinese who visited the country since December last year, when coronavirus first spread.

Hundreds of thousands of those Chinese visitors were from Wuhan, epicenter of the outbreak that is now considered a pandemic.

Salvana said that based on the Chinese experience, “the only thing that seems to have a major impact on transmission is social distancing.” This is precisely the problem that faces the Philippines, especially Metro Manila, which has a daytime population of some 14 million, incidentally about the same population as Wuhan.

‘We do not want to wait until we have a case load as high as Wuhan because even they had a hard time controlling and they have much more resources than we have,” said Salvana.

We need to think of pre-emptive social distancing now if we want to have a chance to contain coronavirus, he added.

At the start of this week, President Rodrigo Duterte finally declared a state of public health emergency, three weeks after the DoH first recommended declaring the emergency when the first cases of coronavirus appeared.

The state of emergency will remain in effect for an indefinite period.

The Philippines was one of the first countries outside of China to report a death from the disease last month. The fatality was a middle-aged Chinese visitor from Wuhan.

At the start of the week, the global death toll was approaching the 4,000 mark, with some 109,000 cases reported.

As the WHO warned, the situation will get worse before it gets better.