MANILA - The Philippines now has more cases of Covid-19 than China, where the coronavirus that causes this disease was first reported, with the Health Ministry reporting that hospitals are already "close to being overwhelmed".
The Philippines on Wednesday (July 29) recorded 1,874 new coronavirus infections, bringing its total to 85,486. By comparison, according to data gathering firm Worldometer, China had 84,060.
Indonesia still has the most number of infections in South-east Asia, with 104,432, and thousands more have died there and in China than in the Philippines.
But with the high rate of infections in the Philippines, and a government more focused on reopening the economy than slowing the spread of the virus, experts from the state-run University of the Philippines (UP) expect the country's caseload to surge to 150,000 by end-August.
More than half of the country's infections surfaced only in the past month, when most of the restrictions that were in place during a sweeping, two-months long lockdown were eased.
Health officials said cases spiked because more people are now out and about, going to work or going on more non-essential forays outside their homes.
But critics insisted that the government failed to capitalise on gains from the lockdown to come up with a mechanism that would entail mass testing, contact tracing and quick isolation of those with Covid-19.
President Rodrigo Duterte is said to be considering reinstating tough movement and social distancing restrictions in Metropolitan Manila.
But his economic advisers are insisting that with over three million people out of job and most small businesses folding, the way to move is to reopen the economy.
On Wednesday, a task force coordinating efforts to roll back the outbreak allowed gyms, Internet cafes, tuition centres, pet clinics and drive-in cinemas to reopen.
Health officials, though, are concerned that if the rate of infection remains at its current pace, the public health system will be overwhelmed.
Hospital beds for Covid-19 patients in Metro Manila are nearing full capacity, with 4 in 5 beds already occupied.
Across the country, more than half of the beds for Covid-19 patients are in use.
"Nationally, our health system might soon be overwhelmed," said Health Undersecretary Rosario Vergeire, as she called on the public to observe "minimum health standards" and to stay home if possible.
In terms of all hospital beds, about 56 per cent of them are already occupied in Metro Manila and close to half nationwide.
Dr Vergeire said the Health Ministry has called on hospitals to set aside more beds for Covid-19 patients, as cases continue to surge.
Several hospitals said last week that they had reached full capacity for Covid-19 patients.
A doctor told The Straits Times that a doctors' Viber chat group was filled with messages asking where they can have a patient admitted.
One doctor in a Metro Manila hospital said there was a day when he had to turn down five patients.
In his annual address to the nation on Monday, Mr Duterte offered scant details about how he intends to contain the surge in Covid-19 cases that continues to stall efforts to restart a sinking economy.
Critics said the core of his plan seems to be to just wait for China to come up with a vaccine, and hope the Philippines will be among the first countries to get it.
Vice-President Leni Robredo, who heads the opposition party, on Wednesday said in her rebuttal against Mr Duterte that instead of wishful thinking and waiting for a vaccine, "we have to start with collecting the right data".
"From here, we can determine who and what places we should focus on for mass testing, contact tracing and support for communities and hospitals," she said.
Additional reporting by Dana Batnag