Lockdown in Philippines slows spread of virus but devastates jobs

Residents, whose jobs or livelihoods were affected by stricter restrictions imposed amid rising Covid-19 cases, receive cash assistance from the government, at an elementary school in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, April 12, 2021. - Reuters

MANILA (The Straits Times/ANN): The Philippines is coming out of another hard lockdown and signs are it may have succeeded in putting a break to an alarming resurgence in coronavirus infections.

Latest Health Ministry figures showed the number of daily Covid-19 cases was down to about 8,000 in the past two days, from as high as 15,000 in recent weeks.

The virus is also not spreading as fast as it used to, according to data crunchers. But the cost has been devastating to an economy that ratings firm Moody's believes is already in "a worrisome state".

The government slapped sweeping restrictions in Metro Manila and four nearby provinces, an area covering a quarter of the nation's population, from March 29 to April 11 to slow a new outbreak far worse than last year's.

Infections, fuelled by new, more transmissible variants, had topped 10,000 a day in recent weeks, double the numbers when the first outbreak peaked last year.

Hospitals are still filled to the brim. There have been gut-wrenching stories of patients dying in makeshift tents and inside their cars because hospitals are inundated with patients and running short of rooms and resources to treat them.

With close to 900,000 infections and over 15,000 dead, the Philippines has the second-worst outbreak in South-east Asia, after Indonesia.

The government's main economic planning agency said that while the two-week lockdown managed to prevent about 260,000 new infections and some 4,000 deaths, it also led to at least 130,000 workers in Metro Manila alone losing their jobs and over 50,000 more going hungry.

Already, since the pandemic slammed the brakes last year on the Philippines' remarkable growth story, over four million Filipinos remain without jobs while close to eight million have had to take pay cuts from shorter working hours.

The National Economic and Development Authority estimates that each worker has seen their pay shrink by 23,000 pesos (S$630) since various forms of quarantine restrictions were put in place in March last year.

Winifred Bagyosa, 53, a barber who works for a large chain of men's salons, said he again had to go for two weeks without earning a cent because of the latest lockdown.

He gets paid a small, basic salary, but his main income is dependent on how many customers sit on his chair for a haircut and the tips they give him.

"So, no work, no pay," he said.

He said he and his wife have had to again lean on their adult children, who are themselves hard up and trying to supplement their income by selling food online.

The country's economic managers have been pushing hard to relax quarantine restrictions to revive a crippled economy.

Economic Planning Secretary Karl Chua has been arguing that Covid-19 infections had been contained even after the government allowed more companies to reopen and more workers to come to work in October.

He said this was proof that there is a way to safely reopen the economy, via "localised lockdowns, for instance, even with the new variants causing infections to spike".

"The issue we face now is not economy versus health," he added. "It is the total health of the people, whether from Covid, non-Covid sickness, or hunger." - The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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