MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte has extended the lockdown on metropolitan Manila and half of the main island of Luzon, in the Philippines, till May 15 as the government begins a phased easing of strict quarantine restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“We are all at risk. Don’t increase the odds or chances of getting (the virus),” Mr Duterte said during a meeting of a task force overseeing efforts to control the outbreak.
The announcement on the extension was made on Friday (April 24) morning.
Apart from Metro Manila, 17 provinces in Luzon will remain in lockdown. All are deemed “high-risk” areas. Metro Manila accounts for three out of every five confirmed patients for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
For the rest of Luzon, where cases of infections were few or none at all, quarantine restrictions have been eased.
Luzon, which is the size of South Korea, makes up the northern third of the Philippines and is home to half the country’s population of over 100 million. Manila is in Luzon.
Mr Duterte placed all of Luzon in lockdown on March 16.
NOT YET THERE
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters on Thursday (April 23) infection, fatality and hospitalisation rates seemed to be plateauing.
But when asked if that warranted lifting the lockdown altogether, she replied: “We’re not there yet. We have not yet reached that point wherein we can say we have already flattened the curve.”
The Health Ministry reported 211 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, bringing the total in the Philippines to 7,192. So far, 477 have died and 762 have survived.
Mr Duterte on Friday chafed at what he perceived to be repeated violations of the government’s shutdown restrictions, saying these were preventing the government from getting the outbreak under control.
He heaped particular scorn on Maoist rebels, accusing them of ambushing soldiers and policemen escorting health workers and relief supplies.
“I might declare martial law, and there will be no turning back… I have two more years. I will try to finish you all,” he warned.
Mr Duterte has also widened the lockdown’s ambit to other densely populated areas outside Luzon.
It now includes the islands of Cebu and Panay, in the central Philippines, and the Davao region, in the south, including Mr Duterte’s home turf, Davao City. Cases of infections in these regions range from about a dozen to over 100.
Luzon has been effectively shut off from the rest of the sprawling archipelago and the world since mid-March.
All domestic flights and sea travel, except for those transporting essential goods, have been suspended.
Companies have wound down operations and sent their workers home, except for those providing food and medicine, utilities, banks, telcos and logistics firms.
A web of checkpoints and barricades manned by the military and police across Luzon is making sure everyone stays put.
BE PATIENT, PLEASE
Mr Duterte has again appealed for patience.
He said: “There is no telling how long Covid-19 will remain in our lives.”
“We’re just waiting for the right time. Just be patient, please,” he said.
Frustrations over the sweeping lockdown, which has led to over a million jobs lost, piling debts for small companies and a crippled economy, have been boiling over.
A mentally ill former soldier was gunned down on Tuesday at a quarantine checkpoint in Quezon City, north of Manila, after an altercation with police officers.
A video of the episode that was widely circulated in the country showed five police officers rushing to a store and one of them drawing a gun and shooting Mr Winston Ragos twice.
Last month, violence erupted after a gathering by informal settlers in Quezon City to queue for promised relief turned into an impromptu rally.
Police officers in riot gear and fatigues responded with force, scuffling with protesters. Twenty-one people were arrested.
Manila Mayor Isko Moreno this week shut the borders of one district - with a population of close to 400,000 - for two days, deploying close to 1,000 policemen and soldiers with armoured vehicles to make sure everyone stays at home.
Many neighbourhoods in this district had been defying stay-at-home and social distancing orders to protest against food shortages, and what they saw as the government’s failed promise to provide relief supplies and salary subsidies.
‘COVID EQUALS VACCINE. PERIOD’
In areas in Luzon where the lockdown has been eased, “non-leisure stores” in malls can now reopen, and public transportation will resume “at a reduced capacity”.
Colleges and universities may also resume classes, and work on “priority and essential” construction projects can also resume.
But those below 21 years old and above 60 will have to remain at home, and local governments may still opt to impose curfews.
Mr Duterte stressed that life in the Philippines would not return to normal until a vaccine emerged.
“Covid equals vaccine. Period,” he said.