A spokesman for the Philippine government on Monday warned of a potential new surge in coronavirus cases after shoppers appeared to ignore social distancing rules as the capital region gradually opened up for business.
Photos posted on social media showed Filipinos thronging to malls on Saturday, the first day of a government move to ease strict quarantine rules and allow some stores and economic sectors to reopen after they were shuttered for two months.
Across Luzon Island, home to Manila and about 60 million people, officials had loosened quarantine protocols “little by little, and slowly,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said. The government lifted the modified enhanced community quarantine for the region, starting on Saturday and running through May 31.
“But what happened last Saturday? The public stormed the malls as if COVID-19 is already gone,” Roque told reporters. “There was no longer physical distancing, there was pushing. If we continue like that, we won’t get government assistance but rather COVID-19.”
He said the entire nation remained under “community quarantine” and that the virus was still present in the country.
“Until there is a vaccine, we are not safe from COVID-19,” Roque said.
The national task force on COVID-19 agreed last week to relax the quarantine rules gradually because numbers pointed to a downward trend, Roque said. But after Saturday, “that will surely skyrocket because we disregarded social distancing and other health protocols,” he added.
Malls that fail to impose strict rules would be shut down, he said.
Anthony Leachon, a leading public health reform advocate and a consultant to the government’s anti-COVID19 campaign, described the failure of malls to control crowd size and enforce social distancing as a setback to efforts to contain the highly contagious virus.
“We have just lost gains of our two-month lockdown,” he told BenarNews. “Where are local government unit leaders and responsible mall owners?”
Leachon said business owners had failed to increase “system capacity” during the two-month lockdown.
“The business sector should have prepared manpower processes, and infrastructure for the modified enhanced community quarantine during the lockdown for a smooth transition,” he said.
On Monday, mall chain operator SM Supermalls, said it had decided on its own to again shut seven malls it operates in Cavite province south of Manila until further notice. In its message, it said the decision was simply made because “your safety matters.”
Roque said that while the government was aware of public sentiment, it could be forced to re-impose strict lockdown rules.
“If the number continues to rise and we can no longer give critical care to the sick, we will all be back to ECQ again,” he said, referring to the enhanced community quarantine.
Roque said Manila’s hospital bed capacity likely could be overwhelmed, adding there were only about 30 government-approved testing facilities.
On Monday, the health department reported seven new deaths from the coronavirus disease, raising the national toll to 831. Officials also recorded 205 new cases, bringing the total number to 12,718.
Globally, more than 4.7 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 315,000 have died as of Monday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
Metro Manila’s top cop in hot water
Meanwhile, the Philippine National Police faced an increasing public outcry after saying it would retain a senior officer who had allegedly flouted quarantine rules by taking part in a birthday bash in his honor despite an order from President Rodrigo Duterte to have him charged.
National police chief Gen. Archie Gamboa told reporters that he could not dismiss Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas, the chief of police for Metro Manila, because his service was indispensable, especially at a time of crisis.
He said Sinas also was at the forefront of government’s campaign against illegal gambling and drugs, crimes that are on top of President Duterte’s list of priorities.
“I hope the public would understand because we’re in an emergency situation, if we replace him, we will never know. He’s hard to replace because he has so many COVID-19 programs,” Gamboa said.