MANILA - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to lift a lockdown that has been in place in Metropolitan Manila and four outlying provinces since Aug 4, choosing to save jobs over a more aggressive approach to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
The shutdown restrictions are being eased this week, even though infections continue to top 3,000 a day and more than 500 people were reported to have died from Covid-19 this month alone. That is one-fifth of the total death toll.
The Health Ministry said on Monday (Aug 17) infections rose to 164,474. More than 2,680 of those infected have died, but about 113,000 - three-fourths of the total - have recovered.
The Philippines now has the most number of infections in South-east Asia.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters earlier in the day that the Health Ministry was monitoring 1,245 clusters, with 411 of them in Metropolitan Manila.
Nearly all were in communities, she said. Clusters were also observed in hospitals and prisons.
"We want to ensure the safety of our people. However, some sectors in our economy, especially the MSMEs (micro, small and medium-size enterprises) are barely surviving," Mr Duterte said during one of his late-evening meetings with his ministers.
His spokesman Harry Roque said at a news briefing that the president's advisers had an "intense debate", with one side wanting the lockdown lifted to restart the economy and the other saying it should be extended for at least two more weeks because the outbreak had not been brought under control.
Mr Roque added: "I personally believe we need to learn how to live our lives with Covid. We need to reopen the economy. People will continue losing their jobs if we remain on lockdown."
A private survey shows nearly half of the country's adult workers were jobless last month. The unemployment rate at the end of 2019 was 2.15 per cent.
Experts from the state-run University of the Philippines are recommending a 15-day extension of the lockdown.
They said in their latest report that Covid-19 cases could be contained to 210,000 by the end of the month if strict shelter-at-home restrictions were kept in place for two more weeks.
A "premature" lifting of the lockdown could lead to at least 40,000 more cases, they warned.
Early this month, Mr Duterte decided to again place Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Cavite and Laguna - home to about 27 million or one-quarter of the Philippine population - on lockdown from Aug 4 to 18, after overwhelmed health workers warned the country was losing the battle against the coronavirus, despite a sweeping, two-month lockdown.
Since the beginning of June, when much of the country emerged from one of the world's longest stay-at-home orders, confirmed infections in the archipelago have increased more than five-fold, surging past 160,000.
Mr Roque said on Monday the two-week lockdown had allowed the government to "reboot" its pandemic response.
He said that while restrictions would be eased, the government would employ "pooled testing" to find as many infections as it can, and continue a "house-to-house" search for those suspected of having the virus.
The government would also continue to build more facilities to house those tested positive for Covid-19, he added.
With restrictions eased, more businesses will be allowed to reopen. Public transport will resume, although on a limited scale. Dining in will again be allowed, and malls and churches can once more open their doors to shoppers and congregants.
"If I want to go to Singapore, I will go to Singapore. If it is a private undertaking or if I want to attend the burial of a friend, I will go there, fly in, fly out," he said.
But no such trip occurred, he added.
"I don't have to keep it a secret because I will not be using government funds… I am under no obligation to travel in secret and not telling the republic at all," he said.
Rumours swirled over the weekend that an air ambulance flew the 75-year-old from Davao City, his home turf where he has been staying since early this month, to Singapore on Saturday for a medical emergency.