20210118 covid-19 philippines
The Philippines' Department of Health reported 10,016 new cases and 16 deaths on March 29, bringing the total to 731,894 cases and 13,186 deaths. Image Credit: AP

Highlights

  • 'Bubble Scheme' covers 25 million inhabitants of Manila and four neighbouring provinces 
  • New restrictions imposed as coronavirus cases hit all-time high
  • Curfew was expanded 
  • A month-long air travel restriction for in-bound flights remains in place

Metro Manila is a megalopolis of 25 million people, including the nearby provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal. That’s about two-thirds of Canada's entire 37.6 million population, a country with a land area 33 times bigger than the Philippines.

On Monday, March 29, 2021, a new COVID-19 lockdown was imposed in the capital, home to nearly 13 million inhabitants, the 5th most-populous urban area in the world, and the four surrounding provinces.

Curfew hours were expanded. It's the first day of the Lenten Week celebrated in Asia’s only Catholic-majority country. The lockdown runs until April 4 — or Easter Sunday. In pre-COVID times, Easter is usually marked with special church services. Inbound flights are also restricted for one month.  

What happens next?

No religious gatherings are allowed during the latest lockdown. The contagion has reached the farthest corners of the archipelago, and local governments are keeping their own restriction protocols.

Philippines reported 9,838 coronavirus cases on Friday, the biggest daily jump since the pandemic began. On Saturday, the health department reported 9,595 new COVID-19 cases. The new lockdown was announced by Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who himself had contracted the coronavirus earlier and had recovered. Out of the 731,894 cases recorded, there had been 603,213 recoveries.

PHILIPPINES COVID CASES AS OF MARCH 29 2021
Image Credit: https://covid19stats.ph/stats/by-country/cases

What are the new lockdown measures?

  • Curfew starts from 6 pm until 5 am — expanded from the previous 10 pm start.
  • Gatherings of 10 or more people outside are not allowed.
  • Non-household members cannot gather indoors.
  • Diners are not allowed to eat in restaurants, although take-out and delivery services can operate.
  • Leisure trips and religious gatherings are not allowed.
  • Only individuals 18-65 years old are allowed outdoors.

Who are the people exempted from the lockdown?

Workers, government security and health personnel and residents on urgent errands are allowed out of homes.

What's covered by the so-called "bubble area"?  

It covers the National Capital Region (NCR) and the four adjacent provinces:

  • Bulacan
  • Cavite
  • Laguna
  • Rizal

Under the Bubble Area scheme, only essential travel to and from the capital region and the four provinces, will be allowed, said Roque. "This is not hard lockdown," he said in a virtual briefing. "But we have additional restrictions."

378 days of quarantine
• It’s been more than a year since the first community quarantine was imposed on Luzon. On March 16, 2020, residents of the main island (where Manila is) — with a total of 53.3 million inhabitants — were ordered to stay at home. Across the country, such community quarantine orders were rolled out with varying severity.

• Under the “Enhanced Community Quarantine” (ECQ), residents must stay indoors unless they can produce a pass that enables them to go out and buy essential items. Non-essential businesses close and there are transport curbs.

• A lower tier, called the general community quarantine (GCQ), introduced on May 1, 2020, is less stringent than ECQ. Public transportation is allowed at a reduced capacity and select businesses are allowed to operate at 50 to 100% of their regular capacity depending on industry. Shopping malls are also allowed to operate, although only select stalls and stores are allowed to open. Some groups — such as the elderly and the very young — must remain indoors at all times. Local villages, or “Barangays”, can apply variations in lockdown rules to an individual street or block.

• Under GCQ, there’s also a modified general community quarantine (MGCQ).

• A "total lockdown" measure — apart from an ECQ — has been considered, which would prohibit people from leaving their places of residence and mandate the closure of all public establishments. 

• A “special concern lockdown” can be applied to only a portion of a Barangay with a high concentration or clustering of active cases of COVID-19. It can be a road, a compound, or a block.

Are gatherings still allowed?

Yes. Gatherings will be allowed for weddings, baptisms, and funeral services, but limited to a maximum of 10 people.

4 SARS-CoV-2 variants
The Philippines now has recorded four variants so far. Three variants (British, South African and Brazilian) of SARS-CoV-2 that have been fuelling record-breaking spikes in infections across the globe are found in the archipelago, plus a "Philippine variant" that has the same lineage as the infectious Brazilian variant.

The variant, first identified in a Filipino to travelled to Japan, manifests mutations that show it may be more transmissible than the original version, according to health officials.

What about travel?

Within the "bubble area" travel will remain unimpeded, Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, the Deputy Chief for Administration of the Philippine National Police, told local media. Eleazar, the No. 2 man of the police, was named officer in charge after the chief, Police General Debold M Sinas, went on isolation after testing positive for COVID-19).

However, travel to and from the bubble area is limited to health and emergency frontline services personnel, government officials and government frontline personnel, persons travelling for medical and humanitarian reasons and those going to the airport to travel abroad.

Are OFWs affected by travel restrictions?
The fresh travel curbs did affect some overseas Filipino workers too. Ambrocio Joromo, 45, a Dubai-based OFW, said he had to cancel his flight, scheduled on April 8, 2021. It's the second time during the pandemic when the same ticket he purchased early last year was cancelled. "The airline informed me that I can't fly on April 8," said Joromo, a lab engineer.

"They did offer a refund.” Besides the refund, he was given two other options: travel at a later date, or keep the money in the "travel fund" for use at another time.

“I'm disappointed. But I don't really have any choice. People are doing their best. Given the reality on the ground, however, the reluctance of many to adhere to the protocols, jumping of the vaccine queues — it seems only a miracle can improve the situation.”

How many coronavirus cases are there?

The Philippines has reported more than 731,894 coronavirus cases, including 13,186 deaths, making it one of the worst-affected countries in Asia.

13,186

Number of people who died due to coronavirus in the Philippines so far, as of Sunday, March 28, 2021, according to an official government tally.

To implement the lockdown, thousands of officers are deployed in checkpoint areas, according to PNA, the official news agency.

Philippines COVID-19 cases
The Philippines' Department of Health reported 9,595 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday (March 28, 2021). Image Credit: JHU - CSSE

Are flights to the Philippines still limited?

Yes. The lockdown on Monday takes place at the height of the Lenten and Easter holiday travel season. The government has limited inbound travel to just 1,500 people as part of measures to control an alarming surge in coronavirus infections.

New aviation rules were set in place on March 16, 2021, with curbs for inbound travel. The rule covers foreign nationals and returning Filipinos who are non-overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Inbound travel for these two categories had been suspended for one month, from March 20 until April 19.

Philippine travel restrictions
New travel rules announced by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID). The agency was created by the executive of the Philippine government to respond to infectious diseases in the country.

The lockdown on Monday takes place at the height of the Lenten and Easter holiday travel season. The Philippine government has also ordered international inbound arrivals at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport to be limited to a maximum of 1,500 passengers per day – for all airlines combined – from March 18 (8am Philippine time) to April 19, 2021 (8am Philippine time), in line with a directive issued by the country's Civil Aeronautics Board. As a result, rates for Manila-bound airline tickets have jumped significantly during the restriction period.

What about the vaccination drive?

The Philippines started rolling out vaccinations initially for medical frontliners. But there had been reported queue jumpers, among them local politicians. Last week, the Department of Health urged people who were not health care workers to refrain from jumping the queue. It will be expanded soon to include senior citizens and individuals with “co-morbidities”, as more jabs ordered by the government arrive.

25m

number of people expected to be inoculated (about 25% of its population) over the course of the year 2021.

The Philippines started vaccinations and expects to inoculate about 25 million people (about 25 percent of its population) over the course of the year. The country has been badly affected by the coronavirus, with the second-highest rate in Southeast Asia.

In response, more than 30 local companies signed an agreement to purchase at least 2.6 million vaccine doses from AstraZeneca in the country’s first such deal to secure coronavirus vaccines recently. They plan to donate a large part of the doses to the government for its planned vaccination drive and use the rest to inoculate their employees.

What's going on in the economy?

The government has launched a massive vaccination drive. But many Filipinos are reluctant to receive vaccines due to safety fears, despite worries about contracting the virus.

Domestic GDP contracted by an average of 10% in the first three quarters of 2020 amid the quarantines, which prompted government cash doleouts to poor families. This, after exhibiting 84 consecutive quarters of growth.

There are signs of recovery. Jobless rate jumped to a high of 17.7% in April 2020, during the strictest period of lockdown, and slid to 8.7% in October 2020. 

Manufacturing posted a near-50-point expansion threshold in November. At the end of the fourth quarter, overall business confidence index reverted to positive territory at 10.6%. Economic outlook further improved in the first quarter of 2021, brought about by expectations of more jobs and permanent employment, but the ugly head of COVID-19 has scuttled hopes, with recent spike in infections.

If larger population does overcome high levels of vaccine hesitancy, GDP is expected to return to its pre-pandemic peak by the first half of 2022, if not earlier, according to Bloomberg.