Philippines to relax COVID curbs even as cases hit record levels

Health department says three out of four new cases linked to Delta variant and warns of new surge.

Despite a lockdown implemented in Metro Manila from August 6 to September 7, the number of cases only continued to go up, while also damaging the economy [Ted Aljibe/AFP]

Caught between a struggling economy and a health emergency, the Philippines is expected to ease COVID-19 restrictions from Wednesday to allow more business activities to resume, even as the country posts record numbers of daily cases and a test positivity rate of almost 30 percent.

The Philippines reported a record 22,415 COVID-19 cases on Monday, with a positivity rate of 28.8 percent. At least 103 more deaths were reported, lifting the country’s official death toll to more than 35,000.

The Department of Health says that three out of four new COVID-19 cases recorded were now being identified as the more transmissible Delta variant. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a positivity rate of no more than 5 percent for a country to be on top of an outbreak.

As of Monday, all of Metro Manila, except for the city of Manila, is now classified at Alert Level 4 – the highest level – with more than 70 percent of hospital beds and ICU spots occupied.

“The Delta variant of concern had been detected across all areas in the National Capital Region,” Health Under-Secretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters in Manila.

Vergeire noted that Metro Manila, which accounts for about a third of the country’s economy, continues to register an upward trend in reported new COVID-19 cases, increasing by an estimated 13 percent in recent days.

The surge in cases is taking place despite a month-long lockdown that came into effect on August 6.

‘Granular lockdown’

Officials say the restrictions have damaged the economy, which rebounded in June after suffering the sharpest downturn since World War II and five consecutive quarters of gross domestic product (GDP) contraction.

In an interview with ABS-CBN television on Tuesday, Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Benjamin Abalos Jr, said that given the economic hardship millions of Filipinos face under the current large-scale lockdown, the government had decided to adjust restrictions allowing more business activities to restart in the national capital region.

Authorities have started implementing a so-called “granular lockdown” singling out specific neighbourhoods where cases remain high.

Metro Manila is home to around 13.5 million people. Millions more in the surrounding provinces work in the national capital region, leaving as many as a quarter of the country’s 110 million people directly affected by the economic and health disruption in the capital.

On Tuesday, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that while the unemployment rate slightly eased to 6.9 percent in July, the overall labour force participation dropped to 44.7 million during the same month from 48.8 million in June.

Inflation has also accelerated to 4.9 percent in August even as the economy continues to stall.

But Dr Tony Leachon, a former adviser to the Duterte administration’s pandemic response, points out that the so-called “granular lockdown” can only be successful if there is also an effective system of testing, contact tracing, quarantine and vaccinations.

Leachon says that based on the government’s pandemic track record, it has not successfully implemented the required steps to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 cases.

The Philippines has nearly 160,000 active cases nationwide and has confirmed a total of 2.1 million cases since the start of the pandemic last year.

The health department has warned the number of infections is likely to continue to rise in the coming days, adding to the pressure on hospitals and medical services.

The vaccination programme has been sluggish, hobbled by supply constraints and distrust.

At least 15 million people were fully vaccinated as of September 5, according to the government. That makes up about 21.1 percent of the target 70.8 million people needed to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity by the end of this year.

Former General Carlito Galvez Jr, who has been designated to lead the country’s vaccination programme, says that he wants to get 20 million people fully vaccinated by the end of September.

In an interview with a Manila-based TV station, he also said that 25 million more vaccine doses will arrive in the Philippines this month.

Source: Al Jazeera