Mindanao, Philippines – They gathered shoulder to shoulder, many without masks, yelling in unison to welcome 2020’s Christmas season. But the coronavirus wave that doctors had warned about did not happen.
Then as restrictions were eased slightly in January, lockdown weary residents in the southern Philippines, started heading to nearby seafronts and highland parks.
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Again, there was no spike in cases and some began to question whether the pandemic was real or “just a money-making venture”.
As the Philippine summer arrived in March, many were confident enough to pack public halls across towns and small cities to collect government aid, ignoring social distancing restrictions and enjoying the free lunch distributed by elected officials.
Some mayors even allowed the reopening of cockfighting arenas, a magnet for gambling and mass gatherings. A few Catholic priests also subtly encouraged parishioners to attend Sunday masses in person, despite church attendance being limited to a maximum of half the usual capacity.
In farming communities and fishing villages, residents resumed their usual habits – hanging out with friends, walking around the neighbourhood or playing basketball and billiards – mostly maskless.
By the time fiesta season arrived in April and May, many were also hosting dinners for visiting family and friends despite a ban and the threat of arrest and other penalties. With each town and village celebrating their own patron saint, the merrymaking was repeated throughout the region’s close-knit communities.
Health officials and police, usually from the same district, looked the other way as drinks were passed around at street corners and people belted out their favourite karaoke tunes, as if the second coronavirus wave in Manila and other urban areas were a universe away.
Inevitably cases began to rise – first slowly, then in a cascade, which is still not slowing down – a sign, experts said, that the pandemic has become deeply embedded in rural communities where health facilities are already facing overcapacity.
“This is not isolated in Visayas and Mindanao provinces,” said Peter Cayton, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines School of Statistics.
“The surge is affecting many Luzon provinces, as well,” he told Al Jazeera referring to the country’s three major island groups.
Only about 1.5 percent of the Philippines’ 110 million people are fully vaccinated against the virus, according to the latest data from the Philippine Vaccine Tracker, and government contact-tracers are unable to catch up with the exploding number of new cases. Hospitals are already at capacity and medical resources in short supply.
Nationwide, more than 7,400 new cases were reported on Thursday, bringing the total number of infections to 1.29 million.
Rising cases presage more deaths, and the southern regions have been increasingly hard hit.
Edson Guido, a data analytics expert from the University of the Philippines, noted that as of June 7, Mindanao accounted for a quarter of new cases, higher than Metro Manila, showing that the pandemic has shifted to the regions far outside of the metropolitan areas.
In Dipolog, a city on the southern island of Mindanao, residents got an indication of how serious the situation had become when two senior members of the Catholic clergy and a nun died within days of each other in late May. They were hastily buried without the usual elaborate rites. Another senior priest is in quarantine, trying to recover from the illness. One of the priests who died was later found to have succumb to other illness not related to COVID-19.
A former mayor and his brother from a nearby town were also admitted at a government hospital in the same city, as dozens of people were being treated for coronavirus outside in makeshift tents, or hooked up to oxygen tanks while sitting in their vehicles, due to the lack of hospital beds. One 37-year-old patient died on the same day her family found out she had COVID-19.
Hundreds of other patients with mild infections, or no symptoms at all, were meanwhile advised to quarantine at home.
“COVID is real and roaming around our province,” Philip Limsi, a doctor at the city’s only hospital fully equipped against COVID, wrote on social media.
“Please, let us help lower the cases. There are no more rooms and the supply of oxygen tanks are running short,” he said.
In the nearby town of Polanco, dozens of local government employees were infected, forcing a lockdown of town hall operations.
The town’s leadership faced some questions after it allowed a mass gathering of hundreds of farmers and motorcycle drivers to receive government financial aid and food packs despite a lockdown.
The town’s top health official, Dr Patrisha Quema, agreed to answer questions from Al Jazeera regarding the pandemic, but later ignored follow-up requests to send back her response.
As early as the third week of May, the city and its greater province of Zamboanga del Norte had already reported that its intensive care beds were full and that had no more respirators, according to the Department of Health data.
The province also saw more younger people – some just 16 years old – being hospitalised, prompting officials to declare a strict two-week lockdown from June 1.
The order also includes a ban on the public consumption of alcohol throughout the province. But on Wednesday, some people were still seen sharing liquor and drinking from a single, shared shot glass by the side of the road.
Citing her busy schedule due to the surge in cases, Zamboanga del Norte’s top health official, Dr Esmeralda Nadela said she would only be able to answer Al Jazeera’s questions “next time”.
‘Rest well, Mama’
Among those who have succumbed to COVID was Rosalina Ocupe, a former primary school teacher, who had returned to her hometown of Polanco after spending her retirement years in Chicago in the United States.
As a vulnerable older person, she had been careful not to go outside as the pandemic spread. But shortly after her 79th birthday in early May, she fell ill after a household helper got sick. She spent three weeks in hospital in Dipolog on a ventilator.
Her daughter, Patty, had hoped her mother would recover and that she would be home in a few days. Instead, the family received news on Wednesday that their mother had died.
“Rest well, Mama,” Patty wrote in a tribute to her mother, whose remains was hastily buried after sundown on Wednesday, forgoing of the traditional Filipino rites of nine days of wake before burial.
Patty’s older sister, Marichu, who lives overseas, was unable to come home due to travel restrictions. With her mother’s death, she has been left wondering whether she could have done more for her mother.
“Did I do enough for [her] who prayed day and night for me to succeed? This question will always be [left] unanswered.”
Randy, their brother, is bereft.
“[It is] sad, painful and very unfair that COVID took her life,” he told Al Jazeera.
Dipolog is not even the worst hit of the provincial areas.
Nearby Dumaguete in the Visayas recorded a 206 percent increase in infections between May 31 and June 6, vaulting it to the top of the list of cities facing a coronavirus surge nationally.
Recent fatalities in the university town include a retired judge, whose wife is also currently battling the disease, and the city’s vice mayor, Alan Cordova, who suffered a cardiac arrest and died while riding his bicycle, just days after he recovered from the coronavirus.
In an interview with reporters on Monday, Dr Kenneth Coo, a Dumaguete-based physician and national chairman in crisis management of the Philippine College of Physicians, said that even if the city shuts its doors to outsiders in response to the surge, there was already “community transmission”.
“The most important is, we have to isolate the hazard,” he said warning that all hospitals in Dumaguete are at overflow capacity while noting that the latest infections in the city were traced to dinner parties with family and friends.
“No parties, please. No mass gatherings, please, that’s my request to the community.”
Several cities in Mindanao are also facing a surge such as South Cotabato, General Santos, as well as Davao City, where Duterte was mayor for more than 20 years. Among the latest fatalities was Davao del Sur’s provincial governor, Douglas Cagas, who died on Thursday.
In a news briefing on Wednesday, the OCTA Research Group, which tracks coronavirus cases in the Philippines, said that the national government should consider sending health workers and equipment to Mindanao.
OCTA’s Ranjit Rye warned that if the surge continues, hospitals could be overwhelmed.
“Our appeal to the national government is to let us deploy people, equipment, and support to these areas,” Rye said, adding that the surge could last for a month.
As for Limsi, a provincial doctor and respiratory specialist, he appealed to people to stay at home, adding, “Your birthday party would not be worth the suffering your visitors could face [if they are infected with COVID].”
Meanwhile, Cayton of the University of the Philippines, said that whether the Philippines will see a spiral of surges and slowdowns of infections depends on the government’s ability to implement on contact-tracing, testing, vaccination and treatment.
So far, there is still not enough indications that the government is doing that, he said.