Updated at 3 p.m. ET on 2020-08-03
Millions of people in Manila and nearby cities will see their movements restricted again, starting Tuesday, after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered that the Philippine capital region be placed back under a COVID-19 lockdown as the number of confirmed cases surged past 100,000 over the weekend.
Duterte gave the order late Sunday after an emergency meeting, which focused on a warning from the Philippine College of Physicians and about 80 other medical groups during the weekend that the “health care system has been overwhelmed” and a timeout was necessary to make adjustments.
Metro Manila as well as highly populated areas in nearby Laguna, Bulacan, Rizal and Cavite provinces were to be placed under a modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) through Aug. 18, Duterte said.
“I have heard the call of different groups from the medical community for a two-week enhanced community quarantine in Mega Manila,” Duterte said during a late-night briefing on Sunday that was attended by emergency officials and carried live by government television. “I fully understand why your health workers would like to ask for such a timeout period.
“We are doing everything possible to alleviate the situation, to assist our health care workers and enhance our health care system,” he said, emphasizing that advanced countries, including the United States, faced similar concerns.
Essential businesses such as banks and food processing firms will be allowed to operate, while barbershops, restaurants, malls and others that had been allowed to open gradually will again be closed. Mass transportation including trains and buses will be stopped while ferries and domestic air travel are to be scaled back.
“[A]ll of us will again be homeliners – stay at home,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters.
“Going in and out of the house is banned, especially for youth and seniors, except for those getting essentials and those allowed to work in offices and establishments that are essential,” he said.
Face-to-face education is forbidden but online classes will continue as school facilities will be closed. Individual outdoor exercise such as walking, jogging, running or biking will be allowed.
“Mass gatherings are prohibited except for critical government services and authorized humanitarian activities,” Roque said. “Up to five people will be allowed in religious gatherings.”
In March, the Philippines imposed a strict quarantine but lifted it after 100 days to jumpstart the economy. Last week, Duterte further loosened the capital’s quarantine measures and allowed the opening of more establishments in a bid to spur the economy further.
The health department reported 3,226 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, on top of the 4,963 on Saturday and 5,032 on Sunday, pushing the total since the pandemic began to 106,330. It also reported that 2,104 had died of the coronavirus nationwide since the pandemic broke out in the Philippines.
The nation has the second highest number of infections in Southeast Asia, trailing Indonesia, which has reported more than 113,000 cases according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University. Globally, more than 18.1 million have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 690,000 have died.
80 medical groups seek ‘timeout’
On Saturday, the 80 medical groups led by the Philippine College of Physicians and representing 80,000 doctors, nurses and other health care workers went public and appealed for a two-week “timeout” as hospital staff are stretched out. They appealed for leadership and asked the government, particularly the health department, to reevaluate its strategy in dealing with COVID-19.
“What we’re going through right now is worse than what we went through at the start [of the COVID-19 crisis] in March,” said doctor Lei Camiling-Alfonso, a technical specialist at the Philippines Science of Public Health Physicians.
Camiling-Alfonso said it was premature of the government to ease lockdown restrictions in June, adding this gave the public false hope that the country’s situation was improving.
“It’s not. In fact, it’s far from that,” she said. “Seventy-one percent of ICU bed capacity is already full. If we don’t fix our interventions, it will get worse in two weeks.”
She appealed to people to strictly follow health protocols including the proper wearing of masks.
The health workers said a “timeout” was needed to enable them to regroup, reevaluate the situation and take steps to prevent new cases from overwhelming hospitals.
They urged the government to develop comprehensive and effective measures to address the outbreak, saying health workers were burned out. They also warned Duterte that the system might collapse soon, contrary to government pronouncements.
“We are waging a losing battle,” they said in a letter sent to the president.
The two-week lockdown should be used by the government and health institutions to address hospital workforce deficiency, as well as improve contract tracing and quarantine measures and compliance, the doctors said.
Aside from reviving the stricter lockdown, the government on Monday said it had agreed to hire additional health care workers and distribute millions of facemasks to the poor.
This came shortly after the city government of Manila ordered the temporary closure of two hospitals – the Ospital Ng Maynila (Hospital of the city of Manila) and the Dr. Fabella Memorial Hospital – citing the growing number of infections among staff.