President Rodrigo Duterte imposed an emergency lockdown of the Philippine capital Thursday, as health officials confirmed three new coronavirus deaths in the country, while the number of cases from the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe surpassed 125,000.
Duterte, 74, banned domestic travel to and from Manila – a megacity of 12 million people – in a sweeping monthlong security measure, beginning March 15.
“Community quarantine is hereby imposed in the entire of Metro Manila,” Duterte said in a nationally televised broadcast. “We don’t want to use that term, because you are afraid to call it a lockdown. But it’s a lockdown.”
The order includes a cluster of containment measures along with bans on mass gatherings and the suspension of classes.
These measures were necessary because “there is a crisis, with no solution sight, unless there is a vaccine in the grace of God that will be invented by scientists,” Duterte said.
Duterte said classes at all school levels in Manila would be suspended until April 12.
“Mass gatherings” will be prohibited, he said. This means that near-daily anti-government protests would likely not be tolerated, and security forces are given the green light to arrest demonstrators, officials told BenarNews.
“Let’s just follow. Just a little patience. It’s for your own good,” Duterte said.
The movement of goods would not be covered by the travel restriction, officials said.
Duterte also said that Chinese President Xi Jinping had written him a letter saying that Beijing was willing to extend help in containing the spread of COVID-19, the official name of coronavirus, which was first detected in China’s Hubei province and declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday.
“All we have to do is ask,” the Philippine president said. “In my view, maybe there will be a time, if things deteriorate, that I have to call on China for help.”
Moments after Duterte addressed the nation, the Philippine health department announced that the death toll from the virus had reached five, with three new fatalities reported on Thursday.
The country of 105 million people reported its first domestic transmission of COVID-19 over the weekend. At least 52 cases have now been detected nationwide.
Earlier in the day, Duterte underwent tests for the virus in a bid to assuage the public about the health crisis. The president has been sickly during the past months, and often goes around wearing a necklace with a miniature air purifier to protect himself from common colds.
The tests were made after the government said that Duterte met with some officials and senators who were exposed to a person who had recently tested positive for the coronavirus.
Around two-thirds of confirmed cases of coronavirus have been recorded in China, where the virus that has killed more than 4,600 people worldwide first emerged in December last year. As of Thursday, more than 125,000 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in at least 117 nations and territories, according to WHO.
Thailand reports 11 new infections
Thailand, meanwhile, reported the biggest daily rise in its coronavirus cases on Thursday when it confirmed 11 new infections, bringing the national tally to 70, with one death.
In other developments, the president of Thai Airways International, the state-owned airline that has been laden with financial losses, resigned as the nation’s travel and tourism industry braced for economic fallout from the viral outbreak.
Sumeth Damrongchaitham tendered his resignation as the airline’s chief after his plans to rehabilitate the carrier were reportedly rejected by its board of directors, according to the Bangkok Post, quoting unnamed company sources.
Thai Airways, in a statement, said its board of directors had approved the resignation effective April 11. It did not elaborate.
Sumeth, who was appointed to the post in 2018, wrestled with the airliner’s losses last year of about 12 billion baht ($385 million). Analysts expect losses in the travel industry to deepen this year as a result of the government’s announcement on Wednesday that it would temporarily suspend issuing visas-on-arrival for visitors from China and 18 other countries and territories, where the virus has been detected.
Officials said Bangkok recorded a 44 percent reduction in tourist arrivals last month compared with February 2019.
Indonesia announces stimulus package
Questions on the pandemic’s economic impact also emerged in Indonesia on Thursday as the government announced a stimulus package that includes a six-month tax break for manufacturers.
“After tourism, the hardest-hit sector is the manufacturing sector,” Airlangga Hartarto, the coordinating minister for economy, told reporters at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta. The package will be implemented next month, he said.
Sri Mulyani, Indonesia’s finance minister, had earlier predicted that the country’s economic growth would decrease this year as the outbreak disrupted China’s economy, Jakarta’s biggest trading partner.
“A drop of 1 percentage-point in China’s economic growth will result in a drop of 0.3 to 0.6 percentage points in Indonesia’s [growth],” Sri Mulyani told reporters late last month.
Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, grew by slightly more than 5 percent last year. The country has confirmed at least 34 coronavirus cases, with one death reported.
Malaysia postpones 1MDB trial
The visible impact of the virus also appeared to reach the legal system in neighboring Malaysia, where the Kuala Lumpur High Court postponed Thursday’s hearing related to the multibillion-dollar theft at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Court officials said that lead defense counsel Muhammad Shafee Abdullah received a phone call from his wife informing him that his sister-in-law had to be tested for the virus.
The lawyer’s sister-in-law usually sits at the courtroom next to a colleague, who had been tested positive, attorneys said.
Muhammad Shafee is the defense attorney for former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who established 1MDB in 2009 ostensibly to spur economic development, but instead ended up facing corruption charges.
At the time it filed the lawsuits, the U.S. Department of Justice accused “Malaysian Official 1” – later identified as Najib – and his associates of embezzling and laundering more than U.S. $4.5 billion (18.45 billion ringgit) in 1MDB-linked money between 2009 and 2014.
Najib has denied the allegations.
On Thursday, Malaysia reported nine new confirmed cases of COVID-19, taking the nation’s cumulative tally to 158 cases.
The nation of 32 million people confirmed its first sporadic case on Wednesday, indicating that the disease has spread into the community, from person to person, as authorities also announced that they were tracking around 5,000 citizens, believing that they could have been exposed to the virus.
Health officials sought to trace the thousands from across the country after Brunei reported that a middle-aged man who had attended a religious event outside Kuala Lumpur turned out to be a positive carrier of the virus that causes severe respiratory illness.
“The religious event involved an estimated 10,000 people from several countries including Malaysia,” the health ministry’s Secretary-General Noor Hisham Abdullah told reporters Wednesday.
Bangladesh tells citizens: ‘Do not return home now’
Meanwhile, Bangladesh on Thursday urged its citizens living abroad not to return home, unless they were dealing with a family emergency.
“It would be good if they do not return home now,” Health Minister Zahid Maleque told reporters. “If they return home, they must be put in quarantines.”
The United States has pledged $2.5 million for Dhaka’s efforts to control the outbreak, according to state-run news service BSS.
Bangladesh has cancelled mass gatherings and postponed celebrations marking the birth centenary of its founder after the first three coronavirus cases were detected in the nation, home to more than 165 million people.
Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok, Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta, and Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.