The Philippines recently emerged from one of the world’s toughest and longest lockdowns. After almost four months of Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), Pres. Rodrigo Duterte announced that he would allow gatherings of up to 10 people, reopen businesses and public transportation, and allow movement in and out of Manila, the country’s capital city. While this has been a relief for many businesses, experts worry that transmission and infection rates of COVID-19 will continue to rise.
With more than 31,000 coronavirus cases, 1,186 total deaths, and 8,442 recoveries, the Philippines has still a long way to go before it flattens the curve. Many health analysts believe that the number of infected is higher due to limited testing. Ron Acoba, the chief investment strategist at Trading Edge Consultancy, emphasized the hundreds of new infections being reported by the country every day. “What’s scared me is that we’re opening our economy but our coronavirus infection numbers haven’t really died down,” he said.
The easing of Manila’s restrictions came shortly after the country’s economy shrank 0.2% in January to March this year—the first contraction in over two decades. It is also projected that the nation has lost as much as $21.8 billion during the first 45 days of the lockdown. Unfortunately, as much as coronavirus testings are concerned, the Philippines still needs to boost its efforts to see even small progress from its lockdown.
Testing Capacity and Contact Tracing
Now that the Philippine government eased lockdown restrictions despite the increasing COVID-19 cases in the country, many Filipinos are asking if they are winning the war against the novel coronavirus. However, recent reports show that the country’s expanded targeted testing capacity and contact tracing haven’t been effective yet.
According to The Asean Post, a digital media organization with content focusing on geopolitics, renewable energy, financial technology and the environment, the testing capacity of the Philippines reached 32,100 tests per day as of May 27, surpassing its original target of 30,000 tests per day, which is six times more than the 5,000-testing capacity a month ago. Compared to last April, the country has also gained some traction and footing with its expanded targeted testing program. However, the government hasn’t maximized the more than 30,000 daily testing capacity. For instance, the Philippines only conducted 8,496 tests on May 27—way below the 30,000-testing capacity of the country.
Last May, the Duterte administration admitted that it failed to reach even its fairly modest target of 8,000 tests per day. Experts believe that the figure should increase to at least 30,000 tests a day to have a realistic assessment of the situation. “Despite being endowed with tens of thousands of test kits in donations we failed to meet the target of 8,000 tests per day at the end of April. Guidelines for ‘expansion’ of testing were only released on April 16. The majority of testing centers are still in Metro Manila, while only six are located in the provinces. Much is still needed in expanding testing throughout the archipelago, such as increased testing and quarantine centers to minimize backlogs,” Dr. Josh San Pedro, a co-convener of the Coalition of People’s Right to Health (CPRH), said.
It was also well-observed that by far the weakest link in the country’s COVID-19 response is its contract-tracing program. As of now, the Department of Health has a shortage of around 94,000 COVID-19 contact tracers, failing to attain the benchmark target ratio of one contact tracer per 800 people. Many reports have also claimed that the Philippines’ contract tracing initiative is not only plagued by underlying issues but it is also non-existent.
Many experts believe that the reason why the Philippines has a slow response to the COVID-19 pandemic is because of the Duterte administration’s military approach. For instance, Pres. Duterte had assigned retired or senior army officers to lead the governments’ COVID-19 task forces instead of health experts. He allowed army officials to manage a public health crisis, which suggests that they see this pandemic as a peace and order issue, not a crisis that requires long-term health reforms.
The government ordered strict compliance with the ECQ. People were ordered to follow all restrictions which meant harsh penalties for being outside and curfews. According to Foreign Policy, an American news publication focused on global affairs, current events, and domestic and international policy, Pres. Duterte is also being accused of using the military to introduce more repressive policies. This approach worries not only Filipinos but also many people across the world because this could facilitate a long-term backslide toward authoritarianism.
“There is always a risk that mobilizing the military will undermine democracy and the rule of law, and it is up to politicians, activists, and societies to guard against that,” Prashanth Parameswaran, the director of the Bower Group Asia consultancy group and a fellow at the Wilson Center, said.
Many experts also expressed their concerns about how Pres. Duterte intends to use violence to maintain order in the country. For instance, about 21 hungry protesters were beaten and arrested by the police after they gathered to voice their discontent and demand food and aid. The president quickly sent a message for anyone who intended to replicate the protest.
“I will not hesitate. My orders are to the police and military, as well as village officials if there are any trouble, or occasions where there’s violence and your lives are in danger: shoot them dead,” Pres. Duterte said.
According to The Diplomat, an international online news magazine covering politics, society, and culture in the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippine police have also announced that they will stop issuing warnings and will simply arrest even low-level violators of the quarantine rules. Last April, police press briefings revealed that arrests were shown to have spiked during the quarantine. At the same time, there have been many reports and sightings of extreme prejudice in the operations of law enforcement.
Many organizations in the country are condemning these acts and encouraging the Duterte administration to refocus its efforts. Activists urged the government to treat this pandemic as a public health crisis instead of a war against its people. “The Duterte government and its minions [are] exploiting quarantine measures to harass, vilify, and rabidly arrest — even kill — activists. Instead of responding to the socio-economic needs of the people, these mass arrests will only worsen the plight of the poor. Those who are helping the poor are being put in jail,” Cristina Palabay, the secretary-general of human rights group KARAPATAN, said.