Isopropyl Alcohol are seen left at a shelf of grocery store in Quezon City as people panic buy due to COVID-19. March 11, 2020.
The STAR/Michael Varcas

Supermarkets feel the pinch as cargoes remain stuck at checkpoints

Ian Nicolas Cigaral (Philstar.com) - March 18, 2020 - 5:59pm

MANILA, Philippines — Supermarkets are sounding the alarm bells as shelves get emptied few days into the month-long lockdown of the entire Luzon, triggering concerns of a supply shortage if cargoes face more delays. 

“Supplies are running low after several days of panic buying,” Steven Cua, president of the Philippine Amalgamated Supermarkets Association Inc., an industry group of independent grocery stores, said in a text message to Philstar.com.

“Current supplies (are) just good for a few days. All (are) out of instant noodles,” he added.

Bigger players are also feeling the bite, albeit slower. Paul Santos, chairman of the Philippine Retailers Association, said while supplies in supermarkets owned by their members like SM and Robinsons are still sufficient, they are fast depleting.

“For a couple of supermarkets, it’s the replenishment of particular brands that’s been the problem... They’re not lacking for customers, but supply is somewhat stretched out hopefully it will ease soon,” Santos said in a phone interview.

The problem started days before the lockdown but was compounded by it, as a rush of grocery shoppers stocking up supplies from alcohol to canned goods pushed up demand dramatically in days while cargoes were left stuck with the rest of vehicles at checkpoints.

Anecdotal evidence of empty grocery shelves and long queues at cashiers is common, as people discouraged to go out until April 12 try to estimate provisions needed for the next month. But it was only now that supermarket owners are raising concerns supplies are already getting depleted.

“Deliveries from suppliers — despite follow-ups — have not arrived. I guess there is some clog along the way as to why orders are not arriving,” Cua said. 

While the whole Luzon is under quarantine to stem the spread of coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19), the National Capital Region is a particular concern for supply shortage as the densely populated area of 12 million heavily relies on north and southern regions for food and other products.

Indeed, problems of cargo passage had not been addressed despite repeated pronouncements from officials to armed troops guarding entry points to let them in unimpeded. On Tuesday night, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles repeated the plea, and on Wednesday Agriculture Secretary William Dar put it in writing.

“All vehicles carrying crop commodities must be allowed passage,” Dar said in Memorandum Circular No. 07.

Apart from crops, trucks containing rice, eggs, fish, meat and poultry products, which are regularly delivered from outside Metro Manila, should be allowed in, as well as canned goods, milk, vegetables and cooking oil.

Despite orders from higher-ups, Santos said he is still hearing stories of cargoes getting stopped at checkpoints, or worse, being forced to turn back. “The problem is the orders are not being cascaded to those manning the entry points,” he said.

The Department of Agriculture’s circular aimed to address this by establishing separate “food lanes” in checkpoints where accredited cargoes can freely pass.  The DA has started accepting applicants for a “food lane pass or sticker: at its office in Quezon City for permits on Wednesday.

“The food resiliency protocol of the DA identifies this list of food items that must be allowed unhampered and unimpeded transit in all quarantine checkpoints, provided the proper documentation…,” the circular stated.

But Cua is not impressed, as he stressed that some deliveries are way behind schedule. “The problem obviously hasn't been solved given the non-arrival of orders,” he said. - with Prinz Magtulis

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