Coronavirus outbreak

Philippines declares health emergency as virus cases climb

A worker disinfecting a high school in Manila yesterday. Declaring a health emergency releases funds to help local governments prepare for a massive community spread in the Philippines.
A worker disinfecting a high school in Manila yesterday. Declaring a health emergency releases funds to help local governments prepare for a massive community spread in the Philippines.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Philippines has declared a health emergency amid growing anxiety that a deadly coronavirus is already spreading undetected in the capital Manila and nearby suburbs.

"The outbreak… constitutes an emergency that threatens national security, which requires a whole-of-government approach," President Rodrigo Duterte said in a proclamation released early yesterday.

The country later announced 10 more confirmed cases, bringing the total to 20.

Last Saturday, the Health Ministry raised its alert to "code red sub level 1", the second-highest level, after confirming that the Philippines was now seeing local transmission.

Hours later, it disclosed that four more patients at hospitals in Manila were suffering from Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

"This is a pre-emptive call to ensure that national and local governments and public and private healthcare providers are prepared for a possible increase in suspected and confirmed cases," Health Secretary Francisco Duque said last Saturday.

"Moving from localised transmission to sustained community transmission can happen very quickly," he said yesterday, shortly after the health emergency was declared.

The health emergency releases funds to help local governments prepare for a massive community spread. It also eases rules on the procurement of testing kits, masks and other resources public health workers may need to combat the virus.

The government now has only 4,500 testing kits. It expects 2,000 more from the World Health Organisation, and is also entertaining offers from China and South Korea.

Dr Duque said the perception among politicians that the Health Ministry was not doing enough "is largely because of our limited testing supplies".

"As soon as we get more, then we will be able to expand our coverage of who will be tested," he said.

He added that if the situation escalates and the country faces multiple community spreads, the government will raise its alert to "code red sub level 2", the highest level.

That will allow it to quarantine or place under lockdown entire communities, and suspend school and work. But he insisted that a lockdown was "premature".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2020, with the headline 'Philippines declares health emergency as virus cases climb'. Subscribe