Philippines eases Covid-19 lockdown curbs despite uncontained outbreak

The reimposition of strict lockdowns has raised concerns the economy will take longer to recover. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - The Philippines is easing sweeping restrictions that have been in place for two weeks in its capital region and four nearby provinces, even though the number of Covid-19 infections remains high and hospitals are still overwhelmed.

Metro Manila and the provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan and Rizal - home to 25 million, or a quarter of the country's population - will from Monday (April 12) till the end of the month be under a "modified enhanced community quarantine" from a previous hard lockdown, Mr Harry Roque, President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman, announced on Sunday.

Mr Roque said the government was adding over 3,000 more beds for Covid-19 patients, which should ease pressure on hospitals. He did not address concerns over the still-high number of daily infections.

Since the start of the year, the Philippines has been battling an outbreak fuelled by new coronavirus variants that is far worse than what it experienced last year, when it had to impose one of the world's longest and strictest lockdowns to slow the spread.

The Health Ministry on Sunday reported over 11,000 infections. The tally has been at least 11,000 since April 9, and around 9,000 in previous weeks.

With around 865,000 infections and close to 15,000 dead, the Philippines has the second-worst outbreak in South-east Asia, after Indonesia. Hospitals are filled to the brim, with Covid-19 patients waiting for days outside emergency rooms or in walkways for a bed or a room.

There have been gut-wrenching stories of people with severe symptoms dying in makeshift tents and inside their cars because hospitals were inundated with patients and running short on resources to provide them treatment and proper care.

Data analysts from the University of the Philippines-based Octa Research Group said the two-week lockdown had brought the coronavirus' reproduction rate down to 1.23 from 1.88 before the lockdown. The acceptable rate is 1 or lower.

This means the virus is not spreading as quickly as it used to, though it may take a week or more before the number of infections begins to fall.

Still, Octa believes another week of lockdown is needed to roll back the surge. It said "opening up... prematurely would be a significant risk, as it could accelerate the surge again".

Hospitals will remain full for about a month more, even if cases start to go down, the group added.

The Healthcare Professional Alliance Against Covid-19, a group of doctors and other health workers, also believes it is too early for the nation to move out of the lockdown.

"This (lockdown) may have slowed down the spread, but the numbers are still perilously high," it said.

The group noted that the government "still has no clear plans and efforts to fix the root causes".

Systems meant to evenly distribute Covid-19 patients among hospitals, trace their contacts, and quarantine and isolate patients remain in shambles, it said.

But the government has also been under pressure to revive a stalled economy, with millions having lost their jobs, and some shops forced to shut down while others are struggling with huge losses.

With the new rules, more people can leave their homes to go to work and buy essentials. More retail and services outlets at shopping malls may reopen, and restaurants may again accept diners.

Borders will also be reopened, and checkpoints removed. A curfew may still be in place, but for a shorter period than the current 6pm to 5am.

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