By Sara Gomez Armas
Manila, Sep 15 (efe-epa).- Manila reached six uninterrupted months of quarantine Tuesday and is heading toward the world’s longest and strictest lockdown, with no end in sight, while efforts to contain the pandemic continue to fail in the Philippines, the center of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia.
The Philippine capital has more than 144,000 cases, more than half of the country’s total (54 percent), indicating that the harsh confinement has not yielded the expected results in one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
The Philippines has so far confirmed 265,888 cases of COVID-19 -of which 58,754 are still active and 4,630 fatalities, the highest in the region, where almost all neighboring countries, except Indonesia, have contained the pandemic and recovered to some extent.
“The epidemic continues to spread, it is not controlled, and the curve continues to rise after six months, with a daily average of 3,000 or 4,000 new cases, the majority in Manila,” the former Philippine secretary Manuel Dayrit, who successfully managed the SARS crisis in 2003, said in a forum with the foreign press.
The capital – with almost 14 million inhabitants – was closed by land, sea and air on Mar. 15 and will remain so at least until Sep. 30, a total of at least six and a half months, a period in which trips to and from Manila are prohibited except for emergencies.
The quarantine in Manila will be the longest in the world for now.
The first cases of COVID-19 arrived in the Philippines in late January, imported by Chinese tourists, but community transmissions were confirmed in early March and President Rodrigo Duterte, who initially downplayed the impact of the virus, declared a national emergency Mar 9, two days before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the pandemic.
Manila, and almost the entire country, was in strict confinement for three consecutive months, during which the capital became a ghost town, without traffic and with all businesses closed; a situation to which it returned for 15 days in August to stop a new peak of infections that saturated hospitals.
“More tests must be carried out and be more effective in contact tracing and in isolation rules to contain the spread. And then localized closures must be correctly implemented,” said Professor Guido David, from the center for data analysis at the University of the Philippines.
The Philippines has tested only 2.9 million people – about 2.5 percent of the country’s nearly 109 million inhabitants – which makes it difficult to locate new outbreaks of the disease, which has a high percentage of asymptomatic patients, which further complicates the identification of cases.
However, David admitted that “closures and strict lockdowns are not a long-term solution” because it is “economically devastating for a developing country like the Philippines,” so he advocated imposing selective, small-scale quarantines to contain outbreaks.
“I do not think it is effective to surround entire cities or regions. It is only necessary to close particular areas, but making sure that good health practices are followed, such as wearing masks, washing hands regularly and correctly isolating suspected cases,” Esperanza Cabral, who was also Minister of Health between 2009 and 2010 told EFE.
Since Aug. 15, Manila has experienced an intermediate phase of confinement, which still restricts the movement of people – those under 21 and over 60 cannot leave their homes – but it has allowed the reopening of more businesses to reactivate the economy. During the first months, only pharmacies, markets and public transport were partially operative.
However, a multitude of shops and restaurants in the capital have already shut, unable to weather the loss of customers caused by the long confinement; while entertainment venues such as parks, museums or cultural centers remain closed.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the Philippine economy which entered recession for the first time in 30 years, plummeting 16.5 percent in the second quarter, largely due to the strict closure of the capital and neighboring provinces, which account for almost 70 percent of the national GDP.
In addition to sinking tourism, a growing sector in the country that reached 11 percent of GDP last year, the pandemic has paralyzed the construction of infrastructure and the service sector, engines of the Philippine economy.
According to a recent survey, 45 percent of the Philippine workforce is unemployed due to the pandemic in a country where 16.6 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, affecting above all the thousands who live in the informal economy. These include tricycle riders or street vendors, who have been left without savings and starved by the pandemic.
“We advocate for a total reopening of the economy as soon as possible, although with discipline and precautionary sanitary measures, because we have already lost too much employment” Isko Moreno, mayor of Manila, one of the 17 cities that make up the metropolitan area of the capital, told EFE.
The curfew is still in place in the capital, although since mid-August its start has been delayed to 10 p.m. -before it was at 8 p.m.- until 5 a.m., and many neighborhoods have decreed an alcohol ban to avoid night meetings to drink. EFE-EPA