Philippines Tops 1 Million Infections as Region Struggles to Contain COVID-19 Waves

Basilio Sepe and Jeoffrey Maitem
Philippines Tops 1 Million Infections as Region Struggles to Contain COVID-19 Waves A medical worker checks the blood pressure of a patient who received a dose of the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine at a high school in Manila, March 30, 2021.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

The Philippines on Monday surpassed the 1 million mark in coronavirus cases recorded since the pandemic began in March 2020, as the Southeast Asian country and others in the region struggle to contain surging waves in the global outbreak.

The Philippine health department said it had recorded 8,929 new COVID-19 cases within the past 24 hours that took the country past the grim milestone. The department also logged 70 virus-related deaths, bringing the total to 16,853. 

The surge “has placed hospitals under siege,” the Philippine Red Cross said, noting it was “urgently setting up field hospitals, quarantine facilities and scaling up existing testing laboratories.” 

“Urgent extra medical care is a matter of life and death as this pandemic sets alarming new records,” said Richard Gordon, a senator who heads the Red Cross. 

“Our volunteers are working day and night, but we urgently need more medical volunteers to assist COVID-19 patients in emergency field hospitals and quarantine facilities,” Gordon said. “We must bring this virus under control.” 

Elsewhere in Asia, officials in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have restricted travel from India as that nation faces an exploding coronavirus pandemic. India recorded nearly 353,000 new infections on Monday, marking the world’s highest jump in infections for the fifth straight day, according to media reports.

India’s total of more than 17.3 million infections is second only to the United States, which has recorded nearly 32.1 million. Worldwide, more than 147 million infections and 3.1 million deaths have been recorded since the pandemic began, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

Philippine Health Secretary Francisco Duque III urged the public to follow minimum public health standard so the country does not end up mirroring India.

“We have breached the 1 million mark, but we have to look at recoveries also,” Duque said over ABS-CBN television. He said hospital occupancy rates remained at “critical risk levels.” 

After setting a national daily record of 15,310 infections on April 2, Philippine government officials announced a strict lockdown for Metropolitan Manila and four adjacent provinces, whose total population is about 24 million. 

The lockdown led to about 30 percent fewer cases through April 24, spokesman Harry Roque said, adding that President Rodrigo Duterte would announce new quarantine classifications on Wednesday. 

Roque on Monday blamed the new uptick on variants of the disease, noting that while the Philippines had reached 1 million cases, the number recoveries had also been high. 

“I don’t think it is a negative reflection,” of the government’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, Roque told reporters.

“We were not remiss, there were just new variants that caused a rise in numbers,” he said. 

“It is not a positive milestone to be proud of,” said Dr. Tony Leachon, a health advocate who previously advised the Philippine government on its COVID-19 response. “We need to find out solid solutions to end the pandemic.” 

Among others, mass testing and contact tracing need to be strengthened, he said, adding the Philippines should look at Israel as a model country for controlling the virus by introducing a rapid vaccination campaign.

A Bangladesh man wearing an oxygen mask is wheeled into the Dhaka College Medical Hospital by family members, April 24, 2021. [BenarNews]

Travel restrictions

On Sunday, Bangladesh sealed its border with India as New Delhi stopped importing medical oxygen in the wake of its own acute crisis, officials said.

Bangladesh has not suffered from an oxygen shortage, but that could change if COVID-19 infections rise, Dr. Farid Hossain Mia, who heads the hospital division at the Directorate General of Health Services, told BenarNews.

Linde Bangladesh Limited, the nation’s major oxygen producer, had already suspended production of industrial oxygen to deal with the demand for medical oxygen that had tripled, company General Manager Saiqa Mazed said.

Meanwhile as Bangladesh faced a shortage and uncertain deliveries, the government suspended first-dose COVID-19 vaccinations on Sunday after giving initial jabs to 5.8 million people.

India’s Serum Institute could not guarantee that it would supply an additional 30 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine after delivering 7 million, authorities said.

Elsewhere, the Royal Thai Embassy in New Delhi announced on Sunday that all certificates of entry for non-Thai citizens from India would be cancelled as of May 1 and “will be suspended until further notice.”

The embassy noted that Air India flights scheduled to fly to Thailand next month would not accommodate any non-Thais seeking to enter the country.

Indonesia and Malaysia issued similar bans on travelers.

On Friday, the Indonesian government announced it had stopped issuing visas to foreigner who had been in India during the previous two weeks.

Indonesian officials announced that they expected as many as 3.8 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) to arrive on Monday night, according to the government-run Antara news agency.

“So, the plane will come tonight with 3.8 million vaccines from AstraZeneca under the GAVI scheme,” Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said during an online news conference.

He said another 3.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were expected to arrive next month along with between 10 million and 15 million doses from China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd.

In Malaysia, the National Security Council ordered a temporary freeze on flights originating anywhere in India starting Wednesday, but exempted Malaysian citizens and non-citizens married to Malaysians from the order.

Those who return home from India are to be subjected to a mandatory quarantine of 14 days upon arrival. 

On Monday, the government offered an explanation for dipping into the nation’s trust fund to cover costs related to the pandemic.

The Malaysian Ministry of Finance explained that the government would use 5 billion ringgit (U.S. $1.22 billion) from the National Trust Fund in the fight against COVID-19 because of debts tied to the gross domestic product and the 1Malaysia Development Berhad financial scandal.

Finance Minister Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz said 3.5 billion ringgit ($853.8 million) would be used to purchase vaccines while another 1.5 billion ringgit ($366 million) was earmarked for the national immunization plan. 

Mohamad Hasan, deputy president of the UMNO party, a member of the ruling bloc, called the government action to dip into the trust fund worrying. 

“This should be discussed with all parties and all things need to be weighed in under the highest transparency because this involves national interest,” he said on Saturday.

Ray Sherman in Kuala Lumpur and Ahammad Foyez in Dhaka contributed to this report.

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