The Philippines is seeing the start of a surge in coronavirus infections, as cases in about a dozen cities in the capital region rise, health officials warned yesterday.
"There has been a continuous growth of cases in Metro Manila, signalling the start of a surge… It is not a question anymore of if a surge will happen, but when and by how much," Health Undersecretary Rosario Vergeire said.
She noted that people are increasingly gathering in large crowds and flouting safety protocols in the run-up to the Christmas holidays.
Data experts estimate that virus cases could spike, up to 4,000 a day, from a current average of fewer than 1,500, by end-January.
"That's on the higher end, if things get really bad," said Dr Guido David, head of the Octa Research Group based at the state-run University of the Philippines.
He said that with 4,000 cases a day, the health system will be overwhelmed, necessitating a return to a sweeping lockdown.
The Philippines went through one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world early this year, shutting down nearly all businesses and keeping millions of people stuck inside their homes.
With infections retreating to below 1,500 a day and a death rate of less than 2 per cent in recent months, the government has been moving to revive a crippled economy, put people back to work and get them to spend once more.
Tens of thousands of factory workers are back at economic zones in the suburbs that ring Metropolitan Manila.
People are flocking back to restaurants, markets, gyms and churches. Malls are seeing a noticeable jump in foot traffic. Public transport is back up to 50 per cent.
But all this has led to an uptick in cases in the past two weeks, especially in Metro Manila, as people let their guard down, meeting in groups without masks.
The Philippines has the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases in South-east Asia, after Indonesia, with over 452,000. Nearly half of the cases are in Metro Manila, home to some 13 million, with cities such as Quezon City, Caloocan, Taguig and Makati making up a large share.
The government and health advocates are now telling the public to ease back on the socialising.
President Rodrigo Duterte urged the public during a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday not to hold Christmas parties and large gatherings. "Make it a sacrifice… We have suffered enough, and to suffer more is not acceptable. Please continue to obey protocols," he said.
The situation in the Philippines is not unique in the region.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said yesterday that Covid-19 infections have lately been more prevalent among young adults who, in a sign of quarantine fatigue, have been returning to normal routines, ignoring mask mandates and social distancing rules.
Earlier, the coronavirus had hit the elderly more, said Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO's director for the Western Pacific. He told those below 40 years old: "I know how tired you are of this pandemic, and I understand the anxiety, fears and uncertainties you're feeling. Some of you may not even feel particularly vulnerable to this disease. You might think even if you get infected, you won't get very sick. But the truth is, you can."
Dr Kasai added that a vaccine "is not a silver bullet", and the fact that nations have started giving millions of shots should not induce complacency.
"No one nation is safe until everyone is protected," he said, and that could take years.