Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday approved a task force’s recommendation to extend a COVID-19 lockdown covering all of the main island of Luzon until the end of April, as the country recorded a daily spike of 14 deaths from the coronavirus.
The Inter-Agency Task Force made its recommendation as the nationwide number of cases rose by 164 to 3,764, the health department said. With the 14 new deaths reported on Tuesday, the death toll stands at 177.
The lockdown, which had been scheduled to end on April 12, was extended until April 30, to allow Manila more time to improve its health crisis response, task force spokesman and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said.
“We need to extend the lockdown until April 30 so that we can further study COVID-19,” Nograles told an online news conference.
“With the extension, people are required to stay at home further to avoid transmission of the disease. All the prevailing rules and exemptions during the initial lockdown of Luzon will continue,” he said.
For the time being the directive just covers the main island of Luzon, the biggest of the archipelago’s three main islands and home to an estimated 60 million people, Nograles said.
“Right now, there’s no need for an enhanced community quarantine in Visayas and Mindanao but our monitoring continue,” he added, referring to the other two regions.
Increased testing capacity
He said the extension would also allow the government enough time to boost its testing capacity to about 20,000 daily, with a turnaround time of 24 hours.
Duterte had earlier announced an economic stimulus package of 200 billion pesos (U.S. $4 billion) that would primarily go to the poor to help them through the crisis.
In a public address on Monday, Duterte admitted that the government needed more funds to fulfill his promise of distributing cash aid to poor families affected by the crisis.
“The 100 billion pesos [$2 billion] for one month or the 270 billion pesos [$5.4 billion] for two months earlier estimated for this is not enough,” he said, as he ordered his finance secretary to generate funding any way he can.
“Steal, borrow, I don’t care. Produce the money,” Duterte said.
Jonvic Remulla, governor of Cavite province south of Manila, called on Duterte for help and said they were running out of funds for food aid for people severely affected by the lockdown.
“We have depleted maybe two-thirds of our capacity and we have probably two weeks [worth of funds] left to give away,” he told reporters.
“There has to be a realization that the suffering of the poor is the same as the suffering of the middle class and we have to find a way to help them too,” he said.
Duterte was the first Southeast Asian leader to extend a lockdown, amid fears by critics and rights advocates that the increasingly authoritarian leader was using the crisis as an excuse to solidify his political base. He has denied the allegation.
Other countries in the region, such as Thailand, have also imposed strict measures. Bangkok, which declared a state of emergency that took effect on March 26, has closed the nation’s borders to almost all foreigners, except for diplomats.
Globally, more than 80,700 people have died and at least 1.4 million have been infected, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
‘Thank you, China’
On Sunday, a team of 10 medical experts from Beijing arrived in Manila to “share technical advice on the prevention and control” of the virus spread.
“The Chinese experts arrived with invaluable firsthand experiences to share on fighting and containing COVID-19. Thank you, China,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said in a statement.
The Chinese Embassy said their medical experts deployed abroad had “frontline experience in Hubei province,” the epicenter of the virus.
“I hope the arrival of this team will help the Philippines to improve its ability of epidemic prevention and control as well as diagnosis and treatment, so as to boost the confidence of the public in overcoming the COVID-19,” Ambassador Huang Xilian said in statement.
Release prisoners at high risk of COVID-19 infections
Meanwhile, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Philippine authorities to release inmates detained or convicted for non-violent offenses in heavily congested prisons in the country.
“The Philippine government should urgently reduce overcrowding in detention facilities, by releasing minor offenders and prioritizing the release of older prisoners and those with underlying health conditions at particular risk from COVID-19,” said Phil Robertson, a deputy Asia director at HRW.
The Philippines has the highest jail occupancy rate in the world, the HRW said. This has been worsened by Duterte’s 3-year-old war on drugs that has led to thousands of deaths and jailing of thousands of suspected addicts and dealers.
But since March, the arrests and temporary detention of thousands of people for violating curfews and quarantine regulations have further crowded police lockups and jails.
“Failure to act now could result in a serious outbreak in the country’s jails and prisons, threatening the lives of prisoners whose health the authorities have a duty to protect,” Robertson said.
Citing data from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Robertson noted that around 467 jails nationwide were at 534 percent of capacity in March, with congestion rate in its 125 prisons was 310 percent in January the year.
Health officials: 11 deaths from cockfighting event
In the southern Philippine city of Davao, Duterte’s hometown, health authorities confirmed on Tuesday that 11 deaths had been linked to a cockfighting derby attended by hundreds of people.
Dr. Cleofe Tabada, a regional epidemiology officer, told reporters one of the cockfight aficionados could have spread the coronavirus. More than 400 people who attended the event are being monitored, Tabada said.
At least 65 city residents have been confirmed positive with COVID-19, she said.