Ending the year in quarantine: How COVID-19 curbs in the Philippines evolved

Christian Deiparine - Philstar.com
Ending the year in quarantine: How COVID-19 curbs in the Philippines evolved
People are seen flocking to Divisoria in Manila in this November 2020 photo, causing the DOH to remind to public to stay away from crowded areas
The STAR / Edd Gumban

MANILA, Philippines — Metro Manila and some parts of the country will end the year under coronavirus-related curbs put in place in June and that have since been modified during the world's longest lockdown.

The Philippines emerged from the months-long hard lockdown in June, seeing many areas reopening as government looked to revive the economy that, like in many countries, sustained heavy losses from the health crisis. 

More modes of public transport have been allowed to resume operations since then. This was from only limited options in June that spelled trouble for many commuters to jeepneys and ride-hailing services back plying the roads again as the year ends.

Capacity in business establishments was raised to 100% too, while the number of persons allowed in places of worship raised to 30% of maximum.

Under Department of Trade and Industry Memorandum Circular 20-57, the following were allowed to resume operations in November:

  • Testing, tutorial and review centers
  • Gyms, fitness centers, and sports facilities limited to individual workouts and non-contact sports activities
  • Internet cafes
  • Dermatological clinics offering aesthetic procedures as well as other personal care services, including body massage
  • Pet grooming services
  • Drive-in cinemas
  • Travel agencies
  • Tour operators
  • Reservation service and related activities

Those businesses can now operate at 75-percent capacity in general community quarantine areas, and up to 100% in areas under modified GCQ.

Government urges people to go out more

In October, government announced that it was shifting to the third phase of its overall strategy — enjoining more people to go out along with expanding the age group allowed to step outside of their homes, all while looking to improve its prevention and detection strategies. 

And as the Yuletide season approaches, health officials are stressting that mass gatherings are still prohibited, with plans in place as well for a possible post-holiday surge in infections.

The prohibition does not cover shopping malls, with plans to allow parents to bring their children along soon.

The Philippines by December 1 had 432,395 total COVID-19 cases, with 8,418 dead from the virus that has gripped the country hard. 

Lessons to learn

One factor for the country's quarantine stretching to until the end of the year is its lack of investment in healthcare infrastructure, said Dr. Tony Leachon, a public health expert who served as an advisor to the coronavirus task force. 

"The pandemic got the better of us because of our preexisting lack of investment in healthcare," he told Philstar.com in a mix of Filipino and English in an exchange. "This is a huge wake up call for everyone because in the midst of the pandemic, our healthcare workers went abroad to work."

Medical workers had protested the labor department's move to suspend overseas deployment as the agency said they are needed to respond to the situation at home. While it has since been lifted, a cap of 5,000 allowed to leave per year remains, which Secretary Silvestre Bello III said could still be expanded. 

Leachon also said that failing to impose border control early in January and a lack of contact tracing measures as well as a delay in designating officials to take charge left the health department overwhelmed.

President Rodrigo Duterte, as the health crisis was unfolding in late January, refused to ban travelers from China, wary that it would be unfair toward the country where the virus that has now infected over 60 million had originated.

It was only in mid-March that the community quarantine was declared in Luzon, when officials were already confirming over a hundred virus patients.

RELATED: Duterte places entire Luzon under 'enhanced' community quarantine 

"If we self-declared a lockdown just like Vietnam or Korea at that time, we could have avoided it," Leachon said.

Taking swift action is part of the lessons he said the country should learn after spending almost the entire 2020 under lockdown. 

This is along with increasing laboratories' testing capacity, protecting health workers from being infected, channeling government resources to support its virus response, as well as planning for economic recovery with public health experts and civil society involved.

Airing concerns

Leachon said the public helps shape government's pandemic response through making their reactions heard. 

He cited the transportation department's move to reduce the required physical distance in trains in September, which was later on turned down by the president amid clamor and concerns over whether that would be safe.

RELATEDDuterte rules retaining 1-meter distancing in public transpo

"I think government has been receptive to LGU heads' assessment and requests [and] civil society's opinions regarding quarantines status. [This resulted] in decrease in hospitalizations and use of critical care facilities and case fatality rate," Leachon said.

Back in October, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque told the OCTA Research to refrain from publicizing their reports to prevent preempting the president in his decision-making. 

The independent group composed of experts from the academe had been making forecasts on the country's coronavirus situation since April, and had since turned down Roque's suggestion. 

Leachon, who, in June, was asked to step down from his role as advisor over comments on government pandemic response, said officials should take insights objectively too. 

"I think what is important is you voice your opinion to the public," he said, but also stressing that insights should be backed with solid data. "It should be beyond the personality because this is a higher call."



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