Coronavirus Lockdown Launches Manila Into Pandemonium

Duterte announced unprecedented measures, but nobody knows what they mean.

Filipinos hoping to get on flights out of Manila hours before it is placed on lockdown queue at Ninoy Aquino International Airport on March 14, 2020 in Manila, Philippines.
Filipinos hoping to get on flights out of Manila hours before it is placed on lockdown queue at Ninoy Aquino International Airport on March 14, 2020 in Manila, Philippines. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

MANILA, Philippines—Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday ordered a “lockdown” of the entire metro Manila region from March 15 to April 14 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Flanked by army and police officials, the president delivered a meandering, often contradictory address to the nation, leaving residents scrambling to prepare for a month of potential isolation in a region that already struggles to provide access to food, water, and medical care to over 12 million inhabitants.

The address left residents tense and confused, unsure how or why the sweeping lockdown measures, which Duterte said would instill “peace and order” in the region, would be enforced, and how they would address the needs of Filipinos unable to work remotely or access hospitals.

And government officials seem to have no clearer idea than ordinary citizens. Less than 24 hours before community quarantine begins, most people still didn’t understand what it meant—including the health workers responsible for treating suspected coronavirus patients.

As of Saturday evening, there were over 100 confirmed cases—but many more are suspected. The Philippine health department came under fire last month for its sluggish response after the first patient to die from COVID-19 outside of China died in Manila on Feb. 1. The country has so far procured just 4,000 tests, according to the World Health Organization’s Philippines office. Authorities did not intensify contact tracing until late last week. The University of the Philippines Manila has developed coronavirus testing kits, which were recently approved by the health department. But these were not mentioned in Duterte’s speech announcing the lockdown.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

On Friday morning, supermarkets were packed with panicked shoppers, and bus stations were crowded with residents racing to the countryside to wait out the lockdown. Schools will close for one month, and mass gatherings have been banned, although businesses and retailers have been urged to remain open. Public transportation will continue to operate, as will some international flights to Manila’s airport, but domestic land, sea, and air connections will be suspended on Sunday at 12 a.m.

Residents are being ordered to practice social distancing. For many in the crowded city, including the millions of people living in dense, impoverished neighborhoods, this is an impossible task. Manila will become the first major city in the developing world outside of China to be quarantined due to the coronavirus.

But the lockdown may not be all that it seems. Duterte’s own cabinet secretaries pushed back on aspects of the community quarantine measures on Friday—pointedly ignoring Duterte’s use of the term “lockdown”—making it possible that up to 2 million people could enter and leave metro Manila every day.

“Every agency has its own interpretation of what happened [Thursday] night,” said Gene Nisperos, an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines Manila College of Medicine. “People are confused.”

Duterte’s decision came from, but did not abide entirely by, recommendations made earlier Thursday by an interagency task force. His decision to deploy police and military to enforce quarantine measures, which he insisted was “not martial law,” was criticized harshly by Filipinos worried that the increased presence of the authorities could lead to rights abuses in a country that has seen up to 27,000 people killed in the drug war and dozens of civilians killed in military operations ostensibly targeting communist insurgents. “Martial law” quickly began trending on Twitter after Duterte’s Thursday evening address.

“You cannot just enforce a cure,” Nisperos said. “You cannot use the power of the gun to mitigate the spread of the disease. But this is what we’re looking at now.”

The address focused heavily on community quarantine measures, which opposition senators said on Friday are still not clearly defined, and travel restrictions based on the recommendations of the World Health Organization, which participated in the task force as an observer. These efforts will hopefully slow the spread of the coronavirus to other islands of the Philippine archipelago and alleviate strains on the country’s health resources, said Emerito Faraon, an assistant professor of health policy and administration at the University of the Philippines Manila. “I think our government should have done it earlier, but because we follow protocols, we had to wait for tipping points,” he told Foreign Policy.

“Our health front-liners must also be better equipped to protected themselves when they handle confirmed COVID-19 cases,” he added. “They are the real heroes here, if we win this war.”

It may indeed be too late. Several Manila residents told me on Friday they were making plans to flee the capital city before the lockdown went into effect on Sunday. “They think they’re safer there, but they don’t think they themselves might be carriers,” Nisperos said. “Outside metro Manila, the health care system is even worse. When this thing strikes the provinces, we’re going to have a major disaster on our hands.”

Sara Duterte, the mayor of Davao and the president’s daughter, is under self-quarantine due to her possible exposure to the coronavirus. Cases have been confirmed in northern Mindanao and in Batangas, a region south of Manila. Other regions have placed themselves under voluntary community quarantine, potentially disrupting travel plans of Manila residents already fleeing for the countryside.

Duterte’s plan for metro Manila, Nisperos said, did not mention clear plans to distribute resources such as face masks, provide financial subsidies to Filipinos unable to work or forced into quarantine, and support the country’s overburdened health care system. “Even before the [pandemic], it has been teetering on the brink of collapse,” he said.

Duterte’s speech lacked critical details or clear instructions for action. “The directives given by [Duterte] were still broadly stated” and need “refinement and contextualization by respective [local government] heads,” Faraon said. “Effective communication is very important now. Most don’t understand what [community quarantine] means, or why COVID-19 is disrupting their lives now.”

The government, Nisperos said, does not appear to have “a clear, comprehensive outlook on what will happen over the next few days, much less the next few months.”

Nick Aspinwall is a journalist based in Taipei and an editor-at-large at Ketagalan Media. Twitter: @Nick1Aspinwall

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