MANILA, Philippines - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has decided on August 18 to ease the lockdown measures for the capital and its surrounding provinces. The decision came after placing the region in a strict lockdown for two weeks.

But as Metro Manila reverts back to loosened quarantine measures, many of the critical issues that needed to be improved remain ailing from neglect. With the number of Covid-19 cases soaring especially in Metro Manila, the country is very much still in a public health crisis.

Just days prior to the new lockdown, the Philippines hit the 85,000 mark of Covid-19 cases. Despite having just 7.6% of China’s population, the Philippines has recorded more cases than the original epicenter of the virus. The Philippines became the number one Covid hotspot in Southeast Asia on August 6. The country has amassed more than 161,000 patients.

‘Unmitigated’ community transmission

The Department of Health (DOH) points to the improved testing capacity made available to the public. Earlier in August, DOH officials announced a milestone of setting up 100 licensed testing labs in the country, meaning that more positive cases would be reported.

But Dr. Josh San Pedro of the Coalition of People’s Right to Health (CPRH) cast doubt on whether the increased testing capacity is up to standard. He told The News Lens that the rate of positive tests in Metro Manila is above 10%, which means community transmission is “unmitigated.”


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

An armed police officer patrols at a public market where wearing face masks and face shields is mandatory, amid the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak in Taytay, Rizal province, Philippines, August 11, 2020.

“Metro Manila is where several of the world's densest cities belong to, many of which have slum areas,” Dr. San Pedro said, noting the need to test more individuals.

The DOH had promised in May to ramp up testing to 30,000 per day, but daily testing still remains beneath that benchmark. So far, just 1.4 % of the entire population has been tested.

“Contact tracing remains slow and undervalued, probably leading to the Philippines being one of the only countries left in the WHO Western Pacific Region with community transmission,” San Pedro said.

Another significant factor in the lockdown’s return was a desperate appeal by the health sector for a “time-out” due to hospitals being overburdened.

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Dr. Julie Caguiat, convenor of the Citizens Urgent Response to End Covid-19 (CURE Covid), argued that President Rodrigo Duterte has yet to adequately heed the demands of frontline health workers.

She outlined the key areas for recalibrating the pandemic response. “We have to address the lack of human resources for health, unclear financing mechanisms, lack of equipment to include PPE’s compromising infectious control in the field and in hospitals and the lack of public health facilities,” Dr. Caguiat told The News Lens.

Both doctors agree that the overall government response has been brutally incompetent. Not only are basic epidemic control measures lacking, the professionals caring for the sick remain grossly neglected.

A sick healthcare system

Health professionals in any country are at a high risk of contracting the virus. In the Philippines, inadequate support for these frontliners has left them even more susceptible. As of July 16, over 3,800 healthcare workers have tested positive. Doctors’ groups petitioned President Duterte on the urgent need for personal protective equipment.

In response to the demand, President Duterte lashed out at the groups. “I don’t give a fuck if you gather one thousand, two thousand, but bear in mind... We’re not incompetents here because we’re not doctors,” he said. “You do nothing but complain... What can I do? I have always been praying to God for a vaccine.”


Photo Credit:Reuters / TPG Images

Health workers ask questions to residents before getting free coronavirus disease (Covid-19) swab testing at a gymnasium in Navotas City, Metro Manila, Philippines, August 7, 2020.

According to the Philippine Medical Students Association (PMSA), the government should uphold the standard ratio of providing one set of PPE per worker. The association lamented the current practice of forcing workers to buy their own PPE, with many working 12 hours with the same equipment. The DOH also sold overpriced PPE at US$37, when the actual price should be between US$8 to US$20, according to the association.

The perils and vulnerabilities were recently highlighted by the death of a nurse who had Covid-19. The nurse never received the hazard pay she was promised for working during the pandemic. Worse, her family learned that the US$10-per-day incentive was cut down significantly. They were expecting US$615 in backpay but only received US$143 after several deductions.

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Caguiat described her colleagues in the profession as severely suffering. “Health workers are demoralized, angry, and at the same time afraid. A number have died and some have quit or resigned,” she said.

In light of these struggles, Caguiat called for “aggressive hiring” with proper pay and necessary benefits which include familial and psycho-social support as well as free regular testing.

Many healthcare staff shoulder the costs of tests. When those tasked to handle the virus are put in unnecessarily unsafe conditions, the spread of the disease can be exacerbated while wasting the time and resources of the hospitals.

If this is how society’s modern-day heroes are treated during a pandemic, what chance do the rest of us have?

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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