Asia

Daily Covid-19 cases in Philippines soar to highest ever, setting back lockdown efforts

MANILA – The Philippines on Friday (March 19) reported its highest-ever daily Covid-19 infections, even as it began to adopt some “circuit breaker” measures to check a record-setting surge fuelled in part by new, more transmissible variants of the coronavirus.

The Health Ministry reported 7,103 new cases, surpassing the previous high of 6,958 recorded in August last year when the outbreak peaked as the country was coming out of one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns.

The Philippines is the second-worst hit country in South-east Asia, after Indonesia, with more than 648,000 cases in total and close to 13,000 deaths.

The latest Health Ministry bulletin was released just hours after the government announced a slew of tougher curbs meant to slow the surge in infections.

“We are considering everything to balance the livelihood and health of our citizens,” Mr Harry Roque, President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman, told reporters.

Covid-19 infections have more than doubled from about 13,000 a week in mid-February to 25,000 last week.

Hospitals are quickly running out of beds for patients, with the sudden spike in cases.

Three in five beds in intensive care units in Metro Manila are already occupied. At least 50 hospitals have said occupancy rates are now at critical or high-risk levels, with nearly all their beds already in use.

The government is walking back many of the policies it introduced just weeks ago that were meant to ease quarantine restrictions and revive a stalled economy.

It is again shutting down cinemas, gaming arcades, museums, public libraries and driving schools.

Gatherings for business and worship have been capped at 30 per cent of the capacity of venues, from the previous 50 per cent.

The government is also capping the number of its employees who will have to report for work on site to 30 per cent.

A curfew is already in place in Metro Manila, and many cities in the region have already placed certain districts under hard lockdown.

Mr Roque said the government was ready to further tighten the screws.

It was also considering a proposal from data researchers to concentrate its vaccination drive in Metro Manila, where nearly half the cases are found, and in other “hot zones”, he said.

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The University of the Philippines-based Octa Research Group said on Friday that the Philippines could dramatically reduce infections if it could inoculate eight million people in Metro Manila – the capital region that spans 16 cities and is home to some 13 million people.

That should be enough to give Metro Manila herd immunity and “protect other regions indirectly”, said Professor Guido David, the group’s spokesman.

“If we wait for the whole Philippines to achieve herd immunity, that would require about 70 million vaccines and could take two to three years,” he said.

Prof Ranjit Rye, an Octa research fellow, said the Philippines would probably soon need a circuit breaker lockdown.

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That would entail banning social gatherings and indoor dining, sending workers back to work-from-home arrangements or on staggered hours, reissuing quarantine passes to limit those going out only to workers and for essential tasks.

“The problem is a very serious surge. We can’t minimise or downplay it. We need to deal with it, and deal with it collectively,” he said.

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