Philippines confronts alarming new wave of Covid-19 infections with targeted curbs

A checkpoint at the boundary of Rizal province and Quezon City in Metro Manila, on March 15, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - The Philippines is reinstating many of the quarantine curbs it has been lifting since October around its sprawling capital region, as it confronts a new wave of Covid-19 infections that may be far worse than what it experienced last year.

Researchers warn that the country may see up to 8,000 new cases a day by the end of March and up to 18,000 daily infections by mid-April, as the coronavirus is spreading by nearly twice its previous pace.

"We're not trying to frighten people. All we're saying is that's the science. There's no fear-mongering in science," said Professor Guido David, a spokesman for the University of the Philippines-based Octa Research Group.

In signs of how widespread the current wave of infections has been, Mr Harry Roque, President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman, disclosed in his news briefing on Monday (March 15) that he had tested positive for Covid-19.

The heads of the country's 200,000-strong police force and top drug agency were found to have Covid-19 last week.

The Senate announced on Monday that it was going into "semi-lockdown" after three workers of its in-house caterer tested positive.

A number of courts with employees who tested positive had also stopped holding public hearings.

The Philippines has been seeing a spike in infections since the start of the year, with the Health Ministry tallying 3,000 to 5,000 Covid-19 cases a day so far this month.

With over 622,000 cases and nearly 13,000 deaths, the country has the second-worst outbreak in South-east Asia, after Indonesia.

The current surge is being driven in part by four new, more transmissible variants of the coronavirus.

Health officials insist that the larger reason has been because more people are going out, dining in restaurants and in the homes of their kin and friends, and gathering in large, packed groups.

To plug this hole, the government has reinstated a curfew from 10pm to 5am across Metro Manila.

Some cities are again imposing a ban on liquor purchases and requiring quarantine passes.

Many gated communities reporting "family clusters" - entire families getting infected - are closing their gates to non-residents or restricting entry to close relatives and couriers delivering food and other essential items.

Over 70 people were nabbed in two big cities in Metro Manila over the weekend after they were found outside past the 10pm curfew and for violating the liquor ban.

A makeshift barrier set up on a street of a village under lockdown in Manila on March 12, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Roque said a sweeping, national lockdown was still not an option at this time.

"A total lockdown is too bleak. We will have more people suffering because of a lockdown than those getting seriously sick with Covid-19," he said.

He also insisted that the government's decision in October to ease restrictions to revive a stalled economy was not fuelling the current surge.

"That's not the problem. It may be because of the new variants. It's the nature of the virus," he said.

Dr Beverly Ho, a spokesman for the Health Ministry, said hospitals still were not being overwhelmed, even as more patients were coming in with Covid-19.

"But we can't be complacent because our ICU (intensive care unit) beds are already being filled up," she told reporters on Monday.

At least three big hospitals in Metro Manila have reported that their ICU wards have already been filled up with Covid-19 patients.

"The numbers are similar to what we had in August," Dr Benjamin Campomanes, chief medical officer at St Luke's Medical Centre, one of the three hospitals, said.

He said St Luke's had at least 33 patients at its emergency room waiting for Covid-19 rooms.

Critics of the government's response lamented that the Philippines seemed to be in a far worse state a year after it went through one of the world's longest and strictest lockdowns.

"The government continues to use silly and ineffective Band-Aid solutions as a smokescreen for the fact that the real systematic response has still not yet been made," said Senator Rissa Hontiveros, an opposition politician.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.