Philippines closes off capital Manila to fight coronavirus

Soldiers stand guard as they wait inside the military headquarters to be deployed in major thoroughfares, in Manila, on March 14, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - The Philippines recorded three additional coronavirus deaths and 29 new cases, bringing the domestic tally of infections to 140, as authorities placed the entire capital Manila under "community quarantine" for about a month beginning Sunday (March 15).

The latest deaths include an 83-year-old American male with travel history from the United States and South Korea, the Department of Health said in an advisory.

The other two are both Filipinos.

In total, 11 people have died from the virus in the country, a Reuters tally shows.

Domestic land, sea and air travel to and from Metro Manila is now restricted.

Police began closing off access to the Philippines' sprawling and densely populated capital Manila, a city of some 12 million people, imposing a month-long quarantine that officials hope will curb the nation's rising number of coronavirus cases.

Mass gatherings and school at all levels have also been called off, but delays and exceptions have led public health experts to question how effective President Rodrigo Duterte's measures will be.

Though the Philippines has detected a fraction of the infections seen in hot spots like China or Italy, its confirmed cases nearly doubled in recent days to 111, with eight deaths.

"People are advised to stay home and not do anything," Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano told reporters Saturday.

"We were like Italy two months ago. They were arguing whether to impose a lockdown or not," he said, adding such a situation could not be allowed to happen in the Philippines.

The sealing off of the city is not total, as people going to work will be allowed to enter through checkpoints. They will need to show proof of employment or business at checkpoints.

Buses and trains will continue to operate inside Manila's borders.

Ahead of Sunday's closure people packed grocery stores to stock up, and tens of thousands also boarded buses leaving the capital while it was still permitted.

The government ordered buses, taxis and city trains to slash loads so each passenger would be a seat apart from the next, with people running fevers not allowed to board. Motorcycle taxis will be suspended.

The movement of cargo won't be affected.

Religious activities may continue as long as a 1m distance is maintained between attendees.

Officials said they are also limiting services at the state-run Philippine Heart Centre after 13 personnel were exposed to an infected person.

Manila's local leader moved on Saturday to impose an 8pm to 5am curfew, with exceptions for travel to work, buy essentials or seek medical assistance.

However, Mr Duterte's spokesman, Salvador Panelo, said the president would have to approve a curfew covering the entire city and has not yet done so.

"Local government units can impose curfew within their territories if an ordinance is passed imposing it," Mr Panelo said in a mobile-phone message. A recommendation by mayors to impose a curfew in Metro Manila "is subject to the approval of the president. The president has yet to consider it", he said.

Mayors of Manila's 17 local government areas are also pushing for shopping malls, the centres of life in the country, to be temporarily shuttered. But the supermarkets, hardware stores, drug stores, banks and health clinics inside them will remain open, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said in a mobile-phone message on Saturday.

Movie screenings and concerts have also been banned as part of the measures.

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