Commentary: The Philippines hopes lockdown buys time after half-hearted attempts at tackling COVID-19

MANILA: It’s déjà vu in the Philippines where the government has re-imposed lockdown measures in the capital and neighbouring provinces under a two-week Modified enhanced Community Quarantine, after easing restrictions on Jun 1. 

The measures, announced by President Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday (Aug 2) night took effect on Tuesday, following a wave of coronavirus infections and appeals from exhausted healthcare workers calling for a “time-out”.

Stay-home orders have been reimposed. Malls and restaurants with take-out and delivery options will remain open but salons and gyms will be shut.

The Philippine Government should have taken decisive action earlier but chose to do so only after coming under tremendous political pressure. Healthcare workers in the country have been clamouring for Health Secretary Francisco Duque III’s resignation, blaming him for a lack of a concrete plan in the country’s battle against the pandemic for the past five months.

Philippine capital on stricter lockdown amid coronavirus infections spike
Cyclists bike on a pavement as traffic builds up on the first day of the government’s reimplementation of a stricter lockdown to curb COVID-19 infections, in Marikina City, Metro Manila, Philippines, Aug 4, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez)

Powerful unions like the Alliance of Health Workers on Friday (Jun 27) called for Mr Duque to be held accountable.

These moves feel a little too late when the situation has deteriorated drastically. More than 112,000 have been infected by COVID-19, including 6,352 new cases on Aug 4, Southeast Asia’s highest, a point cited by health practitioners that the country’s health care system has been overwhelmed and critical adjustments were necessary. The pandemic has claimed 2,115 lives in the country.

A SLEDGEHAMMER AT A LATE HOUR

To arrest the situation at this eleventh hour, Mr Duterte knows a sledgehammer is needed. He has therefore deployed Philippine police road blocks all over Metro Manila and the areas of Bulacan, Laguna, Cavite and Rizal, where there have been a surge of infections. 

There are also drawer plans to involve the military to safeguard law and order, on top of using them to transport stranded workers.

Movement of people has been deliberately slowed to a trickle but the sudden policy shift has thrown Manila into disarray, because they do not seem to have been thought through.

Although residents can go out to buy essential goods and head to work, many journeys requiring long commutes are near impossible when public transport has ceased under lockdown rules. On Tuesday, workers were sighted walking to work along the national highway into Manila after failing to find a ride.

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Officials have been pushed to the point of desperation, with one in Quezon city threatening a “shoot-to-kill” policy for violators.

Experts from the University of the Philippines say the tough restrictions will ease transmission but rolling out such stringent lockdown measures this late in the game means the country cannot run away from millions of job losses.

The hardest hit will be low-income Filipino relying on daily income as public transport, airports and businesses cease their operation for 15 days.

PHILIPPINES HAD CHOSEN TO FOCUS ON THE ECONOMY

This uphill climb could have been avoided had the Philippine government taken swifter action to curb the spread but the economic drawbacks of such measures had dominated thinking, leading to denial and reluctance.

Government officials had previously highlighted the economy cannot handle an extended lockdown seeing that it had suffered a steep decline in the first quarter of the year.

Just two months ago, financial advisers close to Mr Duterte claimed the pandemic threatened to paralyse businesses and households, after the worst ever plunge in economic activity in the last 22 years.

President Rodrigo Duterte delivering his annual State of the Nation Address to congress in Manila in
President Rodrigo Duterte delivering his annual State of the Nation Address. (Photo: AFP/Robinson NINAL)

The country’s gross domestic product contracted 0.2 per cent in the first quarter of the year, from 6.7 per cent growth registered in the last quarter of 2019, and 5.6 percent in the first quarter last year.  

The jobless rate stands at 7.3 million or 17.7 per cent as of April, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority – and millions more projected even in the absence of the lockdown, including returned overseas Filipino workers.

People are looking to the government for concrete solutions. Disappointingly, despite the capital being placed under close watch for the next 15 days, the government has yet to articulate a clear strategy.

Worse, the response from the top office in the land has been less than stellar. In his late-night public address on Sunday, Mr Duterte recommended people disinfect their face masks with petrol, even clarifying that he was not joking.

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This idea was immediately debunked by scores of medical experts, including those from Integrated Chemists of the Philippines.

At the same time, Mr Duterte ranted against medical workers calling for a clear game plan to defeat the pandemic, branding their appeal as one “calling for revolution”. 

WAITING FOR A GAME PLAN

The next two weeks will be a critical inflexion point for the Philippines to get the pandemic under control. The government must use this as a window to reassess the effectiveness of their restrictions and next steps.

Carlito Galvez, the state’s appointed head of the task force handling the nation’s COVID-19 response, has highlighted that the government will recalibrate and reconstitute rolling plans based on the call of health workers but has been careful to manage expectations that the country can flatten the curve.

Philippine capital on stricter lockdown amid coronavirus infections spike
Stranded workers wait for shuttle services on the first day of the government’s re-implementation of a stricter lockdown to curb COVID-19 infections in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, Aug 4, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez)

Regardless, there are some positive signs. Testing centres have been set up across the country.

In the next two weeks, the state will also tap medical teams from areas with fewer cases and deploy them to hospitals in the Manila area to provide frontliners there with respite after nearly five months of treating thousands of patients. 

These two weeks will buy some time for the government to craft new strategies, including addressing perennial issues about capacity given the longstanding shortage of healthcare workers.

Mr Duterte wants to hire 10,000 more but many job openings in the healthcare sector have seen no applicants or takers.

The Philippine government must also improve the management of COVID-19 cases, not only in testing and contact-tracing, but also in tracking and helping individuals returning to the countryside, and monitoring the challenges hospitals and frontline healthcare staff face.

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FILE PHOTO: Philippines ramps up coronavirus testing
A nurse gets a swab from a man under observation for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in a booth set up in a hospital parking lot in Manila, Philippines, April 15, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez)

Looking ahead, the Health Ministry is currently in talks for vaccines with four drug manufacturers — three from China, one from Taiwan — for a vaccine against COVID-19.

In his annual state of the nation address last week, Mr Duterte mentioned he spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping to allow Manila to be among the first to buy any successful COVID-19 vaccine developed by China.

Unfortunately, critics saw this as a sign of Mr Duterte conceding failure on the part of the Philippine government in curbing the spread of COVID-19 and banking on a vaccine to rescue the situation.

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Jeff Bansigan is a journalist based in Manila.