WE WERE in for a better Christmas this year as Covid-19 cases have continued to decline. The decline in cases has been due to existing strategies in place like the massive vaccination rollout, implementation of minimum health standards, testing, treatment, and isolation or quarantine.

However, last week, a new Covid-19 variant emerged. First detected in South Africa, the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 24, 2021. The health organization classified it as a variant of concern (VOC) on November 26.

"This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs," WHO said in a statement.

According to reports from the Associated Press, several nations have closed down their borders to several nations in southern Africa -- South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Mozambique among others.

Unlike in 2020 when the Philippine government took a while to implement border control measures to prevent the Sars-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, from entering the Philippines, this time around, there was swift action from the government.

In its Resolution 150-D, the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases temporarily suspended inbound flights from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Mozambique to prevent the entry of the Omicron variant. The order was effective immediately and will last until December 15, 2021.

On November 29, the Philippine government added seven more countries to the flight ban -- Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy.

“Inbound international travel of all persons, regardless of vaccination status, coming from or who have been to Red List countries/jurisdictions/territories within the last 14 days prior to arrival to any port of the Philippines shall not be allowed,” Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said.

“Only Filipinos returning to the country via government-initiated or non-government-initiated repatriation and Bayanihan flights may be allowed entry subject to the prevailing entry, testing, and quarantine protocols for Red List countries/jurisdictions/territories,” he added.

Meanwhile, Nograles said, "The Bureau of Quarantine and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) with the local government units (LGUs) have been directed to identify and locate passengers who arrived within 14 days prior to November 29, 2021, from countries classified as Red, and require them to complete quarantine under a home quarantine set-up for 14 days from date of arrival and undergo RT-PCR if symptoms develop.”

The IATF also temporarily suspended IATF Resolution 150-A (series of 2021), which allows the entry of fully vaccinated nationals of non-visa required countries.

National Task Force (NTF) Against Covid-19 chief and vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. assured that the government is closely monitoring the developments surrounding the Omicron variant and at the same time preparing for it.

“Nag-usap-usap na kami sa IATF, para 'yung preparation natin sa mga treatment therapies, ICUs, sa ating mga hospitals, personnel, hinahanda na po natin 'yan (We already talked with the IATF on the preparations for treatment therapies, ICUs, hospitals, and personnel),” Galvez said.

The swift actions of the national government are commendable. While there is the likelihood that the new variant could have already entered the country, one way or another, the recent actions will be able to slow down its spread.

We should also be reminded that it is not only the government who should be making any preparations. We, the public, also have an important role to play. We must also be disciplined enough to follow the minimum health standards and have ourselves vaccinated.