Updated at 7:43 a.m. ET on 2020-03-20
Habib Ismail has taken to sleeping in his makeshift kitchen, the only way he can practice “social distancing” to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among his family of six in a temporary shelter in the southern Philippine city of Marawi.
“I am scared. I heard the virus is very contagious,” the 64-year-old Ismail told BenarNews at his temporary home, around 24 square meters (258 square feet). “But I have to protect my family.”
Ismail’s comments underscore the panic spreading in evacuation sites outside Marawi, where hundreds of families have been living a hand-to-mouth existence since Islamic State-linked militants seized the once-scenic city in 2017.
The uneasiness deepened after the government announced that one of 17 Filipinos who have died from COVID-19 thus far is a Marawi resident who had attended a religious gathering in Malaysia where hundreds were infected.
With more than 200 cases now confirmed in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has imposed a monthlong lockdown on the northern island of Luzon, and advised so-called social distancing and other measures to halt the spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus.
In Marawi, 1,215 km (759 miles) southeast of the Philippine capital, the kind of cleanliness and personal space that health officials advise is a luxury for many.
Ismail worried about sanitation in his temporary camp, Sagonsongan, where clean water was a perennial problem for an estimated 1,000 families. At best, he said, a couple of trucks deliver water every week to the households.
Local authorities on Wednesday said they were tracking more than 200 Filipino Muslim elders who travelled to the religious gathering in Malaysia – yet another worry for Marawi residents.
Local officials believe many of the Filipino participants were from Marawi, the only Islamic city in the predominantly Roman Catholic country, and surrounding areas.
Malaysia pilgrims: identities unknown
Malaysia, the country worst-affected by the virus in Southeast Asia, reported 900 confirmed cases and two deaths on Thursday. Almost two-thirds of Malaysia’s confirmed infections were linked to the gathering at the Sri Petaling Mosque in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, officials there said.
A patient who died Tuesday at a medical center in Marawi City, and was later confirmed positive for COVID-19, had attended that event, Philippine officials said. But the health department has not released the identities of the dead.
One prominent local politician, Abdulrashid Balindong, voluntarily self-quarantined for two-weeks after attending the event in Malaysia.
The whereabouts of hundreds of other pilgrims remained unknown as of Thursday.
They could be in communities near the evacuation site, inadvertently spreading the disease, Ismail worried.
He was glad, he said, that the village chairman handed out facemasks and a sack of rice to each family at the shelter. But alcohol for hand sanitizing was not provided, he said.
“These facemasks will last for a week for us,” Ismail said, “but after that we are not certain.”
Homemade face masks
Another evacuee, Queenie Pacalundo Mamocatao, said her mother makes facemasks for their family of seven.
“My mother is very resourceful and she is a good at sewing together the cloth into a facemask,” said the 29-year-old Mamocatao, a mother of one.
“Thanks be to Allah,” she said, “we can live by and maybe survive the virus.”
Momocatao said she feared for the tricycle drivers, vendors and laborers living in temporary shelters in nearby Saguiaran town in Lanao del Sur province, where local leaders have imposed movement restrictions.
“Where can they get their food? They do not even have medicine,” Mamocatao said.
Three years after Philippine security forces defeated Islamic State-linked militants during the Marawi battle, a large portion of the city has remained off limits to civilians.
Militants from Southeast Asia and the Middle East joined members of the local group Abu Sayyaf in the siege that devastated Marawi and left an estimated 1,200 militants, soldiers and civilians dead.
“We are already facing the difficulty of coming to terms with … a devastated city,” said Drieza Abato Lininding, a leader of the Marawi Civil Society, a collection of Muslim elders.
“Now we are faced with the reality of the displaced, who are the most vulnerable in this time of the disease,” he said.
Lininding said social distancing was sure to fail in the camps for displaced residents, given the limited space in the shelters.
“How can we talk about that when they also worry about their personal hygiene, water is rationed and money or source of income is scarce?” he said.
Updated to provide the estimated size of a temporary shelter in Marawi.