Philippines: Typhoon Vongfong Brings Social Distancing Concerns

Alren Jerome Beronio and Jeoffrey Maitem
San Policarpo and Manila, Philippines
200515-PH-typhoon-620.jpg Residents inspect damage to their homes caused by Typhoon Vongfong in San Policarpo, Philippines, May 15, 2020.
Alren Jerome Beronio/BenarNews

Updated at 2:54 p.m. ET on 2020-05-15

Typhoon Vongfong ravaged areas in the Philippines’ eastern seaboard on Friday, dumping heavy rain, toppling trees and blowing roofs from buildings as it churned its way toward the country’s heavily populated island of Luzon, officials said.

The country’s state weather bureau said that as of late Friday afternoon, the typhoon had made landfall over six areas in the central Philippines and the edge of Luzon island. By Friday night, Vongfong had been downgraded to a severe tropical storm.

Tens of thousands of people displaced by the storm packed into evacuation sites where officials struggled to implement strict social distancing measures because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mark Timbal, spokesman of the Civil Defense Office in Manila, said disaster risk managers had to give particular attention to strict quarantine measures during the evacuation.

“Our evacuees left their houses wearing masks, our personnel in charge of evacuation were wearing PPEs and also observing social distancing measures,” he said, referring to personal protective equipment.

As the storm continued on a northward track, it was likely to bring rain over the extreme northern regions of Ilocos and the Cordilleras Saturday.

Luzon is home to about 60 million people who are in various stages of lockdown imposed by the government to combat the coronavirus spread. Disaster relief officials have expressed concern over housing evacuees in cramped evacuation sites where social distancing rules would likely not be followed.

Market goers fill a rain-soaked street at the Blumentritt Markey in Manila, May 15, 2020. [Jojo Rinoza/BenarNews]
Market goers fill a rain-soaked street at the Blumentritt Markey in Manila, May 15, 2020. [Jojo Rinoza/BenarNews]

In the eastern Bicol region, where the storm made a landfall Thursday night, more than 61,000 families sought refuge in 2,332 evacuation shelters, according to regional police spokeswoman Maj. Malu Calubaquib.

In the Samar region, Vongfong left a trail of destruction, leaving two people injured and forcing 13,000 people to evacuate. At least one villager died during the storm, the Associated Press quoted the governor of Eastern Samar province as saying.

“Several structures have been damaged, mostly houses made of light materials, and fishing boats. As to the exact numbers, we are still assessing to determine the extent of damage caused by the typhoon,” said Col. Ma. Bella Rentuaya, a regional police spokeswoman.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque urged people to be vigilant and coordinate with the government wary of a spike in COVID-19 numbers.

As of Friday afternoon, the health department reported 16 new COVID-19 deaths, bringing the total to 806. It also reported 215 new cases, with the total now standing at 12,091.

Globally, more than 4.4 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 302,000 have died as of Friday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

“We ask the public, especially those who will be hit by Typhoon Ambo, to remain vigilant and to cooperate with authorities as they implement their disaster preparedness and response to ensure everyone's safety,” Roque said in a statement, using the local name for Vongfong. “All concerned agencies are alert and on a standby.”

Alberto Muyot, head of Save the Children in the Philippines, said children and new mothers remained the most vulnerable at the evacuation sites.

“We urge the authorities in the provinces of Bicol and Eastern Samar to prioritize children and their families in already vulnerable communities, who are likely to suffer most from the devastation caused by Typhoon Vongfong,” he said.

Fernando Hicap, head of a fishermen’s group called Pamalakaya, said the typhoon had displaced many fishermen and farmers along the coasts of Samar, Southern Luzon and Bicol region to the east.

He appealed to authorities to include personal protective equipment to evacuees because evacuation centers could petri dishes for the virus.

The Philippines sits on a typhoon belt and endures up to 20 storms a year, some of them devastating and deadly.

In November 2013, more than 6,000 people were killed or missing when Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the central Philippines.

Nonoy Espina contributed to this report from Bacolod City, central Philippines.

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