Philippines Warns of Uptick in COVID-19 Cases Ahead of Christmas

Basilio Sepe
Manila
2020-12-17
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Philippines Warns of Uptick in COVID-19 Cases Ahead of Christmas Philippine shoppers wear protective masks at a mall in Taguig, a city in the Metro Manila region, Dec. 7, 2020.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

Philippine health officials urged citizens Thursday to guard against COVID-19 ahead of and during the Christmas holidays, warning that infections were increasing again and a “sharp spike” in numbers could follow if people weren’t vigilant.

The government has opened up the economy as Filipinos shop and prepare for the festive season in Asia’s only majority-Catholic country. But gains made during the previous four months to contain the virus could be reversed if the number of new cases kept climbing, the Department of Health said.

“[T]he virus is still here and we should remain cautious and vigilant,” it said in a statement issued jointly with the interior department and several other institutions, including the Philippine General Hospital. “As we celebrate this holiday season, let us put prime importance on our safety and the safety of everyone around us. Let us not squander our gains in this pandemic response.”

In recent weeks, the department said, the number of new coronavirus cases had pointed to “a slowing down of the previous improvement in the epidemic curve.”

“There has been a continuous growth of cases in Metro Manila, signaling the start of a surge. Nine cities are now at moderate risk compared to last month when all cities were at low risk. The average daily attack rate in all NCR cities is also higher than the national average,” it warned.

NCR refers to the National Capital Region or Metropolitan Manila, which comprises 17 cities and municipalities with a population of about 13 million people.

“If this trend continues and is not mitigated, it will lead to a sharp spike of cases that might overwhelm our health system capacity, similar to the peak we experienced last August in the NCR. The occurrence of another surge will no longer be a matter of ‘if’ but of ‘when and by how much,’” the department said.

With at least 454,000 coronavirus cases detected in the country to date, the Philippine ranks second behind Indonesia in the number of infections and deaths from COVID-19 across East Asia, according to data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

Manila and other parts of the country have been in various stages of a pandemic-related lockdown since March.

Health department spokeswoman Maria Rosario Vergeire said the government was “trying to prepare for this surge,” while local government units were rushing to put in place systems to prevent this from happening.

“It’s not really a surge yet, but we have started to see cases going up in different parts of the country,” Vergiere told reporters in a virtual news conference. “The experts have said that this is something that is risky because we could see a spike in the coming days if our citizens do not practice (social distancing).”

Vaccine by March

On Wednesday night, President Rodrigo Duterte appealed to the Philippine people to limit their Christmas exposure as the country continues to negotiate for supplies of a coronavirus vaccine for next year, possibly in March.

“Christmastime is about a few days from now. We can follow culture. But remember the word ‘but’… there are rules to be followed at this time of our national life,” Duterte said during a late-night cabinet meeting.

He appealed to Filipinos to wear masks and face shields as a way to limit the viral spread.

“My countrymen, follow the rules of government,” he said. “This is for all of you. Just a bit more of sacrifice. The vaccine is nearly here.”

Carlito Galvez, the cabinet official tasked with heading the government’s vaccine procurement body, reported on Wednesday that Russia’s Gamaleya and China’s Sinovac vaccines were being studied for a possible roll-out by March 2021.

Experts from the Philippines’ science and technology department and their technical advisory groups were conducting tests, he said.

“If the initial tests on Sinovac and Gamaleya are successful, they can be used in the first quarter,” Galvez said during the meeting. “What we are doing is that our vaccine experts are analyzing the performance of Sinovac and Gamaleya, their history and potential adverse effects, as well as looking into the records of their clinical trials.”

He said the government was expecting about 15 million doses of the vaccines by the end of the June. Apart from Sinovac and Gamaleya, the government was also negotiating with AstraZeneca, Pfizer as well as Johnson & Johnson. It has also held talks with Moderna and Sinopharm, he said.

Economic impact

The 9-month-old health crisis has hit the Philippines economy hard, forcing mass migrations back into the provinces from urban centers as jobs dried up and overseas Filipinos returned home, the government said.

The Philippines, like most nations, “did not anticipate what can only be described as a series of unexpected events which has affected almost every aspect of our economy and our very own lives,” said Karl Kendrick Chua, the acting secretary for Socioeconomic Planning.

“We saw a significant contraction of our economy by 16.9 percent and a significant increase in the unemployment rate at 17.6 percent in the second quarter, given the closure of businesses and the loss of income during the ECQ,” Chua said, referring to the “enhanced community quarantine” imposed by the government.

And as the country gradually reopened the economy in the second half of the year and relaxed quarantine rules, a series of devastating typhoons struck the country in rapid succession, compounding the situation.

“This has not been an easy year but in every crisis, there is also an opportunity to move our country forward, as our past experiences show,” Chua said in his assessment of the economy.

He said the government was prepared to manage the risks, hoping that a further relaxation of rules could help induce economic growth.

“This Christmas season, the government has been proactive in advising people to be more careful so that we do not reverse the gains we painstakingly worked for this year,” Chua said.

“Our main intervention is to open up the economy safely so that we can recover faster,” he said, adding that – come January – schools in some low-risk areas would begin in-person learning again.

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