Manila, Philippines – The Philippines is facing a surge in coronavirus cases as it marks a year since the government imposed one of the world’s longest lockdowns.
On Monday, the health department reported 5,404 new coronavirus infections – the country’s highest single-day count since August 2020 – exactly a year since the government enforced stringent stay-at-home orders in the country’s most populous regions.
Even high-ranking officials have not been spared: President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque on Monday told journalists he had tested positive for COVID-19. A few days earlier, National Police chief Debold Sinas also reported testing positive for the coronavirus.
Metropolitan Manila, the country’s sprawling capital region, reintroduced evening curfews on Monday as officials hoped to quell the surge in new infections. The megacity has the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines.
On Tuesday morning, news reports said that at least 1,400 people were arrested overnight for violating the curfew in the capital.
Despite the dire situation, Duterte said late on Monday that the outbreak was “a small matter”, telling Filipinos: “Do not despair. We will overcome COVID.”
Although the spike in infections might be linked to the emergence of more transmissible new variants of the coronavirus, the health department has also blamed Filipinos, saying they were not sticking to health safety protocols as they once had.
More than a year into the pandemic, people have grown tired of wearing face masks and protective face shields, staying indoors, and avoiding social gatherings, health officials said.
But the emergence of new coronavirus variants in the country could pose even bigger challenges to its health officials who have struggled to contain the pandemic.
The health department has confirmed the existence of a new variant, P.3, which was detected by Japanese health officials in a traveller arriving from the Philippines on Friday.
The Philippine Genome Centre says it first detected the virus variant on February 6, but the health department did not announce it to the public at the time.
The Philippines has also reported cases of the P.1 variant first discovered in Brazil, the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom and the B.1.351 first identified in South Africa.
Duterte’s failed policy
Critics have blamed the Duterte administration for failing to contain the outbreak which has resulted in the Philippines having the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia. The rollout of vaccines has also been painfully slow, making it one of the last countries in the region to start inoculating its citizens.
In late 2020, an official in Duterte’s cabinet and a senator said the Health Secretary Dr Francisco Duque III, had not acted quickly enough and missed procuring 10 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for delivery on January 2021.
The government only started vaccinating the first health workers with 600,000 doses of Sinovac donated by China on March 1. Three days later, the Philippines received an initial shipment of about 500,000 doses of AstraZeneca and Oxford University’s COVID-19 vaccine under the WHO-backed COVAX facility.
“The Duterte administration is confident that it is on track in implementing its immunisation programme, and optimistic that it would be able to achieve its target of inoculating about 70 percent of the country’s population within this year,” Carlito Galvez, the head of the government’s vaccination drive, said on Sunday.
LOOK: The initial number of weekly cases by date of onset of illness for Mar. 4-10, 2021already exceeded the weekly no. of cases during the previous "peak" on Aug. 6-12, 2020!
Since the March 2021 data are still initial, the numbers are still expected to go up. This is serious. pic.twitter.com/l1uOQw3HMd
— Earth Shaker PH (@earthshakerph) March 15, 2021
Galvez, the head of the government’s vaccination drive, said on Sunday the country was on track to immunise 70 percent of the Philippines’s 111 million people by the end of the year – the level needed to achieve herd immunity.
However, some officials said the transmission of the virus could not be substantially curtailed because the rollout of the vaccines was too slow and the stocks inadequate. The government has a little more than one million vaccine doses on hand now.
At the rate vaccinations is being released, it would take the country until 2033 to hit herd immunity, Senator Panfilo Lacson said.
“If we do not improve on this pace, and let’s all hope we will accelerate, we will finish vaccinating the 70 percent targeted population to achieve herd immunity in 11 years and eight months or 2033,” he said in a statement.
Scientists from the University of the Philippines’s OCTA Research group, which has been tracking the spread of COVID-19 in the country, say the government needs to take tougher measures to curb the outbreak because new variants are now present in the country.
“We believe that there is a need for more significant mobility restrictions to slow the surge down. This surge is significant and our projections show that it will not be slowing down anytime soon,” OCTA Research’s Ranjit Rye told Al Jazeera.
Despite having had one of the longest lockdowns in the world, Metro Manila did not see a decline in new cases until the government introduced widespread testing, contact tracing, and the isolation of COVID-19 patients in August 2020.
A sustained escalation in new infections “is a mathematical certainty” and the government may have no other choice but to again place Metro Manila and its suburbs under lockdown, at least for two weeks.
Unlike last year’s lockdown, however, the government must couple stay-at-home orders with testing, contact tracing and isolation of coronavirus patients, or else it would all be for naught, said Rye.
This would safeguard the healthcare system in Metro Manila until more people there were inoculated.
“Over and above all these is the acceleration of the vaccination programme of the country,” Rye added.
Transmissions of the coronavirus in the Philippines had slowed to an average of less than 2,000 new cases a day between November 2020 and February this year due to movement restrictions. But daily figures started to increase again in March, as the government spoke publicly of plans to ease stay-at-home rules to boost economic activity.
The pandemic has plunged the Philippines into its worst economic recession since World War II. Its gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 9.5 percent in 2020 thanks to several lockdowns. Some four million Filipinos were reported to be unemployed in January, up from 2.4 million a year before.
Funds for social welfare handouts have all but run out and the government has switched its focus to financing public infrastructure projects to bring unemployment numbers down.
As of Monday at least 12,837 people have died of COVID-19 in the Philippines, with the total recorded cases of the disease at 626,893.
This story has been amended to clarify the PGC identified the P3 variant on February 6.