Millions in Philippines back on lockdown as coronavirus cases soar

Philippines is close to passing Indonesia with the most cases so far in South-east Asia. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - The Philippine capital and four surrounding provinces will again be shutting down on Tuesday (Aug 4), restricting some 27 million people - about a quarter of the population - to their homes for two weeks, after overwhelmed health workers warned the country was losing the battle against the coronavirus.

"We are in the critical phase of our management of the crisis. We can see that the virus' behaviour is changing," Mr Carlito Galvez, head of a task force overseeing efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19, told reporters on Monday (Aug 3).

He said it was expected that cases would rise, as the country began to reopen after a two-month long sweeping lockdown.

But the government did not anticipate how fast the virus would spread.

The Health Ministry on Monday reported 3,226 new cases and 46 deaths. That brought the country's total infections to 106,330, with 2,104 fatalities.

Three-quarters of those cases were tallied from the beginning of June, when the country emerged from one of the longest stay-at-home orders.

"We really fell short. Nobody anticipated this," President Rodrigo Duterte said late on Sunday , as he restored for two weeks many of the restrictions that were lifted on June 1.

This applies to Metropolitan Manila and the provinces of Laguna, Cavite, Rizal and Bulacan.

Public transport, including trains, buses, taxis, ride-sharing services, motorised rickshaws and the ubiquitous jeepney minibuses, will be halted.

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Only a limited number of businesses will be allowed to operate. Those that will remain open will have to provide shuttle services for their employees.

Non-essential businesses that were earlier allowed to reopen would again have to close down. These include barbershops and salons, gyms and fitness centres, internet cafes, pet clinics, as well as testing and tutorial centres.

Malls will have to shut retail stores, keeping open only groceries and pharmacies. Dining-in at restaurants is again prohibited.

People have been ordered to stay home unless they need to buy essential goods or exercise outdoors.

Ms Ella Salvacion, 47, who works for an outsourcing company, said the new restrictions would have little effect on her since she has been working from home since March. But there would be inconveniences. "Markets and some streets would again be closed," she said.

Images on social media showed long queues at groceries and banks, as people tried to stock up on cash and food before the new restrictions set in.

Ms Salvacion said she agreed there was a need for tougher curbs, as hospitals, unable to cope with the influx of patients, were already turning people away. More than 5,000 medical workers have contracted the virus, including 500 in the past week.

But she did not expect the situation to improve any time soon. "The government has no plan," she said.

Ms Abel Perez-Castro, 50, who runs an online food delivery service, said she expects her business to pick up. "More customers will rely on deliveries instead of them buying it directly from stores," she said.

She also doubted whether the return to a lockdown would make a difference. "Honestly, overall the handling of Covid-19 by the government is terrible. They really don't have a plan," she said.

But Mr Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque said the government is "heading in the right direction".

He said the new restrictions should discourage family and social gatherings, and keep more people out of their offices, which he said were the top reasons why infections had been spiking.

Health officials are monitoring 315 clusters in Metro Manila.

Researchers at the University of the Philippines said they expect the tougher curbs to prevent at least 50,000 new cases. They said infections would have topped 220,000 by the end of August if the government stays the course.

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