Philippines reopens borders, schools in first step to living with Covid-19

A teacher disinfecting the hands of pupils at an elementary school in San Juan City, Metro Manila, the Philippines, on Feb 10, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - With infections falling and no threat on the horizon, the Philippines is reopening its borders and schools as it resumes its pivot towards living with Covid-19.

The government is also considering putting Metro Manila under its most relaxed level of quarantine restrictions since the coronavirus was first detected in the Philippines two years ago.

"The mayors are ready," said Mr Romando Artes, general manager of the Metro Manila Development Authority.

Metro Manila - an urban sprawl of 16 cities and home to over 13 million - is now at "low risk" for coronavirus infections, according to an independent group of researchers.

The reproduction rate in the area - which measures how fast a virus is spreading or receding - is now at just 0.25. A rate of one means the outbreak is contained.

New cases in Metro Manila have fallen below 1,000 from as high as 11,000 in early January, with the percentage of people testing positive down to 9.1 per cent on Wednesday (Feb 9) from 15 per cent last week.

The Health Ministry reported some 4,500 cases across the Philippines on Thursday, down from over 40,000 at the peak of the Omicron surge last month.

The Philippines still has the second-worst outbreak in South-east Asia after Indonesia, with over 3.6 million Covid-19 cases and at least 54,000 deaths.

But with the Omicron-fuelled outbreak receding, the country has reopened its borders to all fully vaccinated tourists.

Tourist arrivals plunged to 1.48 million in 2020 - the first year of the pandemic - from close to eight million the previous year.

Tourism director Virgilio Maguigad said in an online forum that 90 per cent of those working in hotels, resorts, restaurants, meeting halls and other leisure facilities were fully vaccinated.

Over 500 schools, meanwhile, have already started in-person classes. The government is looking at allowing some 6,000 more schools to reopen. The schools have been shuttered since March 2020.

The government is now looking at bringing down Metro Manila's alert level to level 1, its lowest ever. That will allow most companies to operate at full capacity, including restaurants, cafes, bars, hotels, salons and other service firms. Offices may also start to see their employees return after two years of working from home.

A class at an elementary school in San Juan City, Metro Manila, on Feb 10, 2022 as in-person school classes have resumed. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The Philippines has four alert levels, with level 4 - essentially a sweeping lockdown - the highest. Most of the country are now under level 3 or 2.

Lowering the alert level is seen as allowing the economy to recover from a long recession and putting more people back to work.

Some 3.27 million Filipinos remain jobless as at December, slightly higher than the 3.16 million recorded a month earlier.

Property market analysts are expecting a slow recovery in the office market, starting in the second half of the year.

Still, some medical experts warn that the country may be easing restrictions too quickly.

"We're still in the pandemic period… We still need to stay in the alert level 2. It's too early, and I think it is too drastic to change to a lower alert level like 1," said Dr Rontgene Solante, head of the Adult Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Unit of San Lazaro Hospital

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.