Coronavirus cases in the Philippines could spike after President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to further relax a COVID-19 lockdown rules by next week to spur the ailing economy, lawmakers warned Friday.
Duterte on Thursday approved a recommendation from the Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 to gradually open supermarkets and mall stores that sell essential goods, along with certain economic activities by next week.
Mass transportation will also resume next week, with road blocks and checkpoints being modified to allow for smoother traffic flow. Officials encouraged people to use bicycles as their primary mode of transportation.
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros expressed concern over Duterte’s decision, saying that while there was a need to spur the economy, the country faced a massive backlog in terms of testing.
“In fact, there could even be an uptick of recorded COVID-19 cases once we continue to vigorously test the thousands of repatriated overseas Filipino workers, once we meet our target of at least 20,000 tests per day, and once we verify our backlog of at least 7,000 cases,” she said.
Health officials reported 1,046 new COVID-19 cases and 21 deaths on Friday, bringing the nationwide totals to 16,634 and 942, respectively.
Globally, more than 5.8 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 361,000 have died as of Friday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
“Reading the data available to us, it seems that we have not yet flattened the curve,” Hontiveros said. “Instead, this easing of the lockdown may expose thousands of Metro Manila workers and residents to a new wave of community transmission that will definitely overwhelm our already-embattled health system.”
The senator said the government must base its policy decisions on reliable and up-to-date data that would not risk more lives than the numbers we have already lost.
A fellow lawmaker, Sen. Grace Poe, said the country “must not let our guard down even with the transition” to general community quarantine. Previously, the Metro Manila region had been under a more-stringent enhanced community quarantine.
“The national and local government should be present every step of the way to set and implement clear protocols on how our people will deal with this new normal,” Poe said.
Their statements came after experts at the state-run University of the Philippines released a study on Thursday reporting that more than 7,100 positive cases in more than 30 testing centers nationwide had yet to be validated by the health department.
The study recommended that the capital region should be considered as “a single region for quarantine purposes” because, the report said, it remained at “high-risk” from the deadly virus. Contrary to projections by the health department, the report noted there was uncertainty that the Philippines had “already flattened the curve of transmission.”
In a Thursday night cabinet meeting, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III explained the increased number of cases – 539 were reported that day.
“Compared to previous days, the trend has risen, but this is due to the rise of cases that we have confirmed,” Duque said, adding that about 90 percent were considered mild while less than 2 percent were severe to critical.
“I also want to stress that at present our health system capacity is enough,” he said. “In fact, we have around 60 percent reserve capacity in terms of available mechanical ventilators, available intensive care units and isolation beds.”
World Bank loan
Meanwhile, the World Bank on Friday approved a U.S. $500 million (25.2 billion pesos) loan to help the Philippines mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on poor households as well as help spur economic activity for small and medium enterprises.
The loan is to provide “social assistance” to about 18 million poor Filipinos suffering because of the pandemic, which forced the government to impose strict lockdown measures that shuttered many businesses.
The funds would go to a two-month wage subsidy for those who qualify as well as to a credit-guarantee scheme to help ensure continuity of their business operations.
“We thank the World Bank for its prompt action on its financial support for the Duterte administration’s efforts to provide immediate relief to poor and low-income Filipinos plus small business workers who lost their income as a result of work stoppages induced by the coronavirus pandemic,” Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III said.
Government statistics show that 77 percent of micro and small firms and 62 percent of medium-sized businesses had been forced to close because of the lockdown. Those that remained open suffered a more than 66 percent drop in their sales.
Aie Balagtas See in Manila contributed to this report.