The Philippines is once again placing close to a quarter of its population under hard lockdown, as its latest efforts to contain fast-spreading variants of the coronavirus seem to have floundered.
Metro Manila and the nearby provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan and Rizal – home to some 25 million – will be under “enhanced community quarantine” from tomorrow to April 4.
Except for those providing essential services, everyone has been instructed to stay home.
Security forces are already setting up checkpoints to limit cross-border travel to movement of food and other vital goods.
Pharmacies, as well as grocery and hardware stores inside shopping malls, are allowed to remain open. All other retail outlets will be shut. Restaurants are restricted to deliveries and takeouts.
A 6pm to 5am curfew, longer than the current 10pm to 5am curb, will take effect in Metro Manila and in the four provinces.
Public transport will still be available, but trains and buses can only take in few passengers. There is no decision yet on taxis and ride-sharing services.
“We are shutting down to bring down the cases and prevent our hospitals and medical front-liners from being overwhelmed,” Mr Harry Roque, President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman, said in a news briefing yesterday.
Metro Manila, the capital region, spans 16 cities. With over 220,000 cases, it accounts for over a third of the country’s total Covid-19 cases.
The Health Ministry yesterday again tallied more than 9,000 new cases, bringing the nation’s total to about 712,000. There are now more than 100,000 active cases, and over 13,000 people have died.
Data experts have warned that if the virus’ spread remains unchecked, some 150 hospitals in Metro Manila may no longer have any beds available by April 4, as daily cases could top 16,000.
At least 30 hospitals said nine in 10 of their beds were already occupied, while dozens more reported a 70 per cent to 80 per cent occupancy rate.
Number of Covid-19 cases in the Philippines.
New cases recorded in the country yesterday.
The Philippines has the second-worst Covid-19 outbreak in South-east Asia, after Indonesia. But its number of infections has been nearly double Indonesia’s since the start of this month.
The government is hoping to bring down daily infection numbers by at least 25 per cent with the hard lockdown.
The current spike in infections is worse than what the country experienced last year. It saw its outbreak peak in August, just as it was coming out of one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns.
The country had been able to keep infections below 2,000 a day from August to December.
In October, it eased restrictions, as it moved to revive a stalled economy, and was looking at further relaxing curbs this year.
But cases again began rising this January, with at least four new, more transmissible variants fuelling the resurgence.
The impending hard lockdown coincides with the celebration of Holy Week, the most revered religious celebration in the largely Catholic nation.
In previous years, millions would leave Metro Manila to visit their families or vacation in the provinces or abroad.
This year, all churches and shrines will be closed, and all church events shuttered.
Reacting to reports of panic-buying following news of the lockdown, Mr Roque said there would be no shortage of essential items sold in supermarkets, groceries and public markets.
“There’s no reason for panic buying. We won’t run out of food.”
Addressing criticisms of the government’s pandemic response, Mr Roque said: “We’re fighting the virus, not the government.”