MANILA - The Philippines is once again placing close to a quarter of its population under hard lockdown next week, as its latest efforts to contain fast-spreading variants of the coronavirus seem to have floundered.
Metro Manila and the nearby provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan and Rizal – home to some 25 million – will be under “enhanced community quarantine” from Monday (March 29) to April 4.
Except for those providing essential services, everyone has been instructed to stay home and not to entertain visitors, even kin.
Security forces are already setting up checkpoints to limit cross-border travel to movement of food and other vital goods.
Only pharmacies as well as grocery and hardware stores inside shopping malls are allowed to remain open. All other retail outlets will be shut. Restaurants are now restricted to deliveries and takeouts.
A much longer 6pm to 5am curfew will take effect in Metro Manila and in the four affected provinces.
Public transport will still be available but trains and buses can only take in few passengers. There is no decision yet on taxis and ride-sharing services.
“We are shutting down to bring down the cases and prevent our hospitals and medical frontliners from being overwhelmed,” Mr Harry Roque, President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman, said in a news briefing on Saturday.
Metro Manila, the capital region, spans 16 cities. With over 220,000 cases, it accounts for over a third of the country’s total Covid-19 cases.
The Health Ministry on Saturday again tallied more than 9,000 new cases, bringing the nation’s total to about 712,000. There are now over 100,000 active cases, and over 13,000 have died.
Data experts have warned that if the virus’ spread remains unchecked, some 150 hospitals in Metro Manila may no longer have any beds available by April 4, as daily cases could top 16,000.
At least 30 hospitals said nine in 10 of their beds were already occupied, while dozens more reported a 70 per cent to 80 per cent occupancy rate.
The Philippines has the second-worst Covid-19 outbreak in South-east Asia, after Indonesia. But its number of infections has been nearly double Indonesia’s since the start of March.
The government is hoping to bring down daily infection by at least 25 per cent with the hard lockdown.
The current spike in infections is worse than what the country experienced last year.
It saw its outbreak peak in August last year, just as it was coming out of one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns.
It had been able to keep infections below 2,000 a day from August to December. In October, it eased restrictions, as it moved to revive a stalled economy, and was looking at further relaxing curbs this year.
But cases again began rising in January, with at least four new, more transmissible variants fuelling the resurgence.
Next week’s hard lockdown coincides with the celebration of Holy Week, the most revered religious celebration in this largely Catholic nation. In previous years, millions would leave Metro Manila to visit their families or vacation in the provinces or abroad.
This year, all churches and shrines will be closed, and all church events shuttered.
Reacting to reports of panic-buying following news of the lockdown, Mr Roque said there would be no shortage of essential items sold in supermarkets, groceries and public markets.
“There’s no reason for panic buying. We won’t run out of food,” he said.
Addressing criticisms of the government’s pandemic response, Mr Roque said: “We’re fighting the virus, not the government.”