Manila struggles to handle COVID-19 despite world’s longest lockdown

By Sara Gómez Armas

Manila, May 29 (efe-epa).- The Philippine capital of Manila was on its way to marking the world’s longest coronavirus lockdown when on Friday it reached 76 days under strict quarantine, a period only matched so far by the Chinese pandemic epicenter of Wuhan, even though the measures appear to have largely failed in flattening the curve of infections.

Cut off by land, sea and air since Mar. 15, the city has continued to be the biggest COVID-19 hotspot in the Philippines, accounting for 64 percent of the over 15,500 cases in the country and 73 percent of more than 900 deaths.

The 13 million residents of the city are set to remain under strict lockdown until May 31, a total of 78 days, with a gradual easing of restrictions scheduled to begin the next day in order to revive the economy. Most of the other provinces in the country had already begun easing the lockdown weeks ago.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s government has resorted to heavy-handed measures and militarization to tackle the epidemic, evoking criticism from analysts and health experts, who have highlighted the high socio-economic cost of the lockdown and the need to complement it with widespread testing, contact tracing, and effective quarantine for those who test positive.

“Continuously applying lockdown is not sustainable because it deepens the potential economic crisis which is likely to come,” Ronald Mendoza, a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, told EFE.

Mendoza has published a study comparing the COVID-19 response of different Asian countries, in which the Philippines does not fare very well.

He said that countries like Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea “effectively flattened the curve and managed to minimize the damage to their economies,” with less dependence on “draconian lockdown measures.”

Selective quarantine, extensive and rapid testing, effective contact tracing and transparency have been the key elements of success in these countries, while in the Philippines the response has mainly depended on military controls, restriction on movement and curfews: a “martial-law model” which has allegedly paved the way for human rights abuses, according to rights groups.

The Philippines has tested around 290,000 people so far, barely 0.26 percent of a population of around 108-million, and the world Health Organization warned this week that the deficiencies and slow pace of its tracking system could heighten the risk of infections.

“The number of newly-reported cases in the Philippines is not rapidly decreasing even after the strict implementation of community quarantine,” WHO Asia-Pacific representative Takeshi Nishijima said.

The testing rate in the country stands at around 2,700 per million inhabitants, far below neighbors like Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia and even low-income Asian countries such as Mongolia, Bhutan and Nepal.

“Although in April the government announced its plan to start ‘massive’ testing with 30,000 tests daily, the current capacity is around 10.000 tests per day, which we cannot consider massive,” Doctor Minguita Padilla told EFE. The doctor called for increasing the number of tests for preventing a possible second wave of the epidemic once the lockdown is lifted.

In the capital, the typical bustle and traffic jams have disappeared from roads, converting it into a ghost city, with even public transport banned and all businesses except pharmacies and supermarkets closed down. Just one member of the family is allowed to venture out, solely for buying essentials.

In recent weeks, authorities have allowed some businesses and industries to reopen at 50 percent of their capacity, but two and a-half months of a strict lockdown have crippled Manila where millions of poor families are facing hunger and destitution.

According to a study published by pollster Social Weather Survey last week, 4.2 million Philippine families have faced difficulties in getting food, amounting to around 16.7 percent of the total households. This figure is double of the number of people experiencing hunger at the end of 2019 and the highest since 2014.

“I don’t know how much longer we can stand this situation. We survive with the help of some neighbors but it’s more and more difficult everyday to put food on the table,” said Renato Castro, a tricycle driver in Manila’s Malate district, where the number of homeless people has been growing day-by-day.

Thousands of construction workers hailing from other provinces have been reduced to begging on the streets of Manila, has the lockdown has left them jobless and without the means to return to their hometowns.

An estimated 2.5 million Filipinos have lost their jobs, although this does not include millions of workers in the informal sector – such as tricycle drivers, street vendors or domestic helps – while the department of labor and employment expects another 10 million people to lose their jobs by the end of the year.

The strict lockdown in Manila could prove to be a severe blow to the economy, as the capital contributes around 36 percent of the GDP.

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