Rising number of Covid-19 cases derailing efforts to jumpstart economy in the Philippines

Departing passengers will be required to sign declaration forms and to undergo quarantine upon their return.
Departing passengers will be required to sign declaration forms and to undergo quarantine upon their return.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - A resurgence in coronavirus cases is threatening to derail efforts by the Philippines to restart an economy that could be headed for its deepest contraction in more than three decades.

The government has warned that tougher restrictions may be restored. But it has baulked at imposing the same sweeping, months-long lockdown it resorted to at the onset of the pandemic in March.

“We really have no alternative because our economy has been pushed to the edge. All of us need to start working,” President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque told reporters.

The Philippines has seen infections rising again since lockdown curbs were eased on June 1, topping 2,000 in recent days from about 500 when the country was still on lockdown.

Experts from the state-run University of the Philippines (UP) said the number could hit 60,000 by the end of the month (July).

“It could even hit 70,000,” Professor Guido David told radio station DZBB on Tuesday (July 7). At that rate, he said, cases could leap to 100,000 by end-August.

On Tuesday, the Health Ministry reported 1,540 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the country’s total to 47,873. It now has the second highest number of cases in South-east Asia, after Indonesia.

Health officials said cases are rising because more people are out and about, with the lockdown lifted.

Mr Duterte is set to address the nation later on Tuesday, as about a dozen hospitals report that all their beds set aside for Covid-19 patients are already occupied, and over 300 clusters had flared up across Metropolitan Manila.

“We’ll just have to dance with Covid,” Mr Roque said. “When you have to live with something, you just have to dance with it… We have to resume our economy, and at the same time protect our people.”

He repeated assurances made by health officials that while more cases were being recorded, fewer people were dying from the coronavirus, nearly all those infected had mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, and hospitals still have more than enough beds for Covid-19 patients.

“As long as people are not dying, we have enough capacity to provide treatment, I will always say we are winning against Covid-19,” he said.

He said the government could continue reopening the economy.

Mr Duterte lifted a three-month lockdown on June 1. Since then, the government has allowed offices, factories, logistics hubs, malls, restaurants, salons, sports facilities and churches to reopen.

Buses, trains, jeepneys, motorised rickshaws, taxis and ride-sharing vehicles, meanwhile, are back on the road. But malls are half-empty, as social distancing and movement restrictions and a lingering fear of the virus keep shoppers away.

Big chains like fast-food giant Jollibee and Starbucks are themselves struggling, as they cope with rules limiting dining to just a third of their restaurant space.

Most firms remain just partly open, as the bulk of their rank-and-file workers struggle to commute with so few public transport vehicles available.

In a sign of how disruptive the outbreak still is, the government was forced to shut down the Metro Rail Transit, the capital’s main railway, for at least five days after close to 200 of its employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

Manila’s main airport has reopened to international flights. But budget carriers Cebu Pacific and AirAsia Philippines say it is still not viable to send their planes back in the air with so few travellers.

The government expects the economy to shrink by 2 per cent to 3.4 per cent this year in the wake of the pandemic. The outbreak will cost the economy 2 trillion pesos (S$56 billion), or nearly a tenth of gross domestic product (GDP), according to the Development Budget Coordination Committee. 

Massive spending will bloat the budget deficit to as much as 8.1 per cent of GDP.

Mr Roque said responsibility for slowing the coronavirus’s spread now falls on local governments, which may opt for hard lockdown districts, communities or buildings with Covid-19 cases, and on private corporations and each citizen.

“The individual needs to have a bigger responsibility,” he said.