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President Rodrigo Duterte re-imposed movement and business restrictions for the greater metropolitan Manila region from 4-18 August, following a plea Saturday from doctors’ organizations that the system could “not hold the line much longer.” The areas covered by the order account for roughly 40% of the country’s GDP.
The doctors asked for a return to the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), the equivalent of a strict shelter-in-place order, but Duterte instead ordered a modified ECQ (mECQ) that allows more types of businesses, especially those in essential manufacturing and service sectors, to operate at reduced capacity. However, the effects will still be noticeable – most service, retail and restaurant establishments that had reopened in the past few weeks will again have to be closed; public transportation will be halted, and citizens will be restricted to their homes except for essentials.
Until late last week, the government seemed to be still leaning towards maintaining the general trend of gradually reopening the economy despite the steady increase in new Covid-19 diagnoses per day. Intensive care and Covid-19 bed utilization capacity in the larger government and private hospitals were nearing or exceeding capacity. But the government believed it could solve the problem by increasing the beds allocated for Covid patients. However, the doctors’ weekend appeal seems to have tipped the debates among policymakers towards reinstating the restrictions, with the government unwilling to run the risk of appearing insensitive to their concerns.
That this was against Duterte’s wishes was evident during the late Sunday night press conference that he called to announce the decision. For a significant part of the televised session, he railed against the doctors for publishing the letter publicly instead of communicating directly with his administration; Duterte chastised them to “not try to demean the government.” The doctors’ actions may reflect the lack of coordination between the health ministry and the healthcare sector, however, instead of an effort to discredit his administration.
Also, Duterte was under some impression — incorrectly and unclear as to why — that the doctors were threatening a revolution. He dared them “to start it now,” with the warning that he would stage his counter-revolt. This is a common Duterte tactic of creating seeming threats against his government to rally his supporters; he has used it on the military in the past. However, in using this approach with the doctors’ plea, he may be alienating a distinct constituency that could significantly and credibly influence public perceptions of his government’s pandemic response.
In addition, Duterte did not indicate any form of substantial national government help to the capital’s low income residents for the latest lockdown, indicating that the burden would fall instead on strained local government units (LGUs). These LGUS may be able to provide some food aid, but substantial financial benefits are unlikely. This indicates that extending the mECQ beyond the 18th will be politically and logistically difficult, as it could stir more discontent unless some form of national government financial assistance becomes widely available.
Whether the two-week mECQ will accomplish much more than a broad but temporary reprieve is doubtful. Government contact tracing capabilities are still inadequate, and testing capacity while at about 35,000 a day nominally is vulnerable to personnel and supply shortages, and coordination with local government contact tracing seems weak. Therefore, at least for the near term, the risk is that the pattern of the Philippines could be one of a jagged path to an exit from the coronavirus outbreak.