Philippines back to square one a year into pandemic as virus cases surge

Metro Manila and nearby cities and provinces are currently under a strict lockdown until April 4 to ease pressure on dwindling hospital beds amid a spike in daily coronavirus cases. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS

Norman P. Aquino, Special Reports Editor
and Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporter

SARAH J. FERNANDEZ (names have been changed) invited several relatives and friends to her house in Manila for her 38th birthday this month, while the capital and nearby cities were experiencing a fresh surge in coronavirus infections.

Several days later, she developed flu-like symptoms and had difficulty breathing. She and her two brothers got hospitalized and were found to have been infected with the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the Santiago family in the village of Doña Josefa in Las Piñas City invited friends over to a party, a week before President Rodrigo R. Duterte placed the capital region and nearby provinces under a strict lockdown this month.

BW Bullseye 2020-focusGuests without face masks were seen spilling into a portion of the street while the loud party went on into the wee hours of the morning.

A year into the pandemic, daily infections in the Philippines are at their peak and highly contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus are sweeping the nation, largely due to a slow vaccine rollout and widespread complacency.

Health authorities reported 10,016 coronavirus infections on March 29, the highest daily tally since the pandemic started last year. About 732,000 people in the Philippines have gotten sick from the virus, while more than 13,000 have died.

The increase in infections is not unique to the Philippines, World Health Organization (WHO) Country Representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe told an online news briefing this month.

He cited widespread complacency because of “vaccine optimism” after the government started its vaccination drive on March 1 using 600,000 CoronaVac doses donated by China.

“It’s the small changes at the individual level, but at a community level it has opened a room for the virus transmission to increase,” Mr. Abeyasinghe said. “We need to become more vigilant and more compliant with the requirements.”

Rising infections might also be due to the circulation of more contagious coronavirus variants, he said.

Fredegusto Guido P. David, a research fellow at the OCTA Research Group from the University of the Philippines, earlier said daily cases might hit 11,000 by end-March due to people’s failure to comply with health protocols.

The group also expects total bed and intensive care units for coronavirus patients in Metro Manila to reach full capacity this week if the current rate of transmission continues.

“These projections suggest that the current surge in the capital is at a critical juncture,” he said in an e-mailed report.

Mr. Duterte locked down the entire Luzon island in March last year, suspending work, classes and public transportation to contain the pandemic. People should stay home except to buy food and other basic goods, he said.

It took several months before quarantines were relaxed and businesses were allowed to reopen. Now, it’s back to square one despite a vaccination program that prioritizes health workers.

The President again put Manila, the capital and nearby cities and provinces under a strict weeklong lockdown until April 4 to ease pressure on dwindling hospital beds amid a spike in daily cases.

Active coronavirus cases in the Philippines may almost quadruple to 430,000 by the end of April if stricter quarantine measures were not imposed, the Department of Health (DoH) said on Monday.

Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Cavite and Rizal were at “critical risk” given the swift rise in infections, while Laguna is at high risk, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire told an online news briefing.

“It’s not because of the government,” Presidential Spokesperson Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr., who said the state response against the pandemic had been “excellent,” said this week. “It’s because of the virus,” he added, blaming COVID-19 variants that are more contagious.

On Monday night, Mr. Duterte said he would allow private companies to import coronavirus vaccines amid the slow rollout of the government’s vaccination program.

“I have ordered Secretary Carlito Galvez to sign any and all documents that would allow the private sector to import at will,” he said in a televised speech. “Whatever amount they want,” he said in Filipino.

The private sector would be allowed to buy vaccines immediately because state vaccine supply had been limited amid a “ruckus” in the global vaccine trade, Mr. Duterte said.

The government had prevented companies from importing coronavirus vaccines unless it was in coordination with the Health department.

Mr. David noted that while strict quarantines are frowned upon because of its effects on the economy, there’s no doubt that it’s very effective in controlling the pandemic.

“We don’t support lockdowns totally because it affects the economy,” he said in a Zoom Cloud Meetings interview. But it was the only way to slow infections at the height of the pandemic last year and maybe now as well.

“Since we didn’t know what was happening, the lockdown was the only method,” he said. “It’s a primitive method but it was the only way to curb the pandemic.”

Antonio L. Dans, a member of Health Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19, said “there’s no question that it was the right move.”

“If we had not called for that lockdown in March, by November in Metro Manila alone, we would have seen 10 million infected, two million hospitalized and 180,000 deaths,” he said in a Zoom interview. “We averted those by going on a lockdown.”

Critics have said the Philippines could have avoided more lockdowns — one of the longest and strictest in the world — had the government aggressively negotiated access to the vaccines being developed last year.

Filipinos generally distrust vaccines and science, with only 25% Metro Manila residents willing to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to a poll by OCTA in December. About 47% of the respondents were undecided, while 28% said they would not get the shot.

The Philippine government had been unable to vaccinate at least 250,000 Filipinos daily to meet its 50 million goal this year due to supply problems. Only 656,331 people have been vaccinated against the coronavirus as of March 27, according to DoH.

Mr. Duterte has said rich countries were being prioritized by drugmakers.

With a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of $9,471, the Philippines ranked 76th among the poorest countries last year.

But poorer nations such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Còte d’Ivoire, with a GDP per capita of $5,028, $4,664 and $4,457, respectively, got their vaccines before the Philippines, according to the website Our World in Data.

Nicholas Antonio T. Mapa, a senior economist at ING Bank N.V. Manila, said lockdowns might be needed to control the surge.

“However, they do inflict severe damage on the economy,” he said in an e-mail. “Thus, it’s important for us to address the health issue.”

Mr. Mapa expects the Philippine economy to recover by the end of next year. “Any delays to the vaccine rollout will push this back further.”

Jarlien Valdez, a 36-year-old sales staff in Manila, is worried about losing her job if the enhanced quarantine in the capital was extended. “I need to feed three kids, so it’s difficult,” she said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

She lost her job temporarily when the shop she works at was shut down at the height of the pandemic last year. She returned to work four months later but got a pay cut because of the shortened work days.

Ms. Fernandez, mentioned at the outset, regrets being careless.

“I wish I was more careful and avoided social events,” she said. “I was lucky to have recovered, along with my brothers. I think I’ve learned my lesson.”