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How the Philippines Finally Got its COVID-19 Caseload Under Control

A woman wearing a protective mask walks outside a village that was placed under lockdown due to the number of COVID-19 cases among residents in Manila, Philippines, on March 11, 2021.
A woman wearing a protective mask walks outside a village that was placed under lockdown due to the number of COVID-19 cases among residents in Manila, Philippines, on March 11, 2021.

The Philippines has gotten a measure of control over its once-runaway COVID-19 outbreak through strict lockdowns and a year of school closures, coupled with widespread use of face protectors, experts and citizens on the ground say.

The Southeast Asian country known for its migratory population — Filipinos work throughout the developed world — has reported fewer than 2,000 new cases per day most of the time since October, down from as much as 6,275 cases previously. Daily counts fell below 1,000 at the start of January.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, only Indonesia struggled last year with the same level of daily COVID-19 caseload surges. Most countries around Northeast Asia, including the coronavirus’s apparent source, China, recovered early last year, despite isolated flare-ups.

Border closures that remain in effect and enforced stay-home orders in the nation of 109 million’s larger cities get the most credit for bringing cases down, residents and a United Nations official say.

Meanwhile, medical personnel are better equipped now to do tests for the virus and trace the contacts of the sick than they were a year ago, according to Aaron Rabena, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in the Philippines’ Quezon City.

Adding support, ordinary Filipinos have accepted the use of face masks and face shields in public.

Public school classes have not met in person for a year, said Behzad Noubary, Philippine deputy UNICEF representative.

“These are the aspects that have contributed to [caseload declines] — the international closure, which has lasted a long time, and a really, really prolonged lockdown,” Noubary told VOA in a call on Thursday.

“Schools have been closed a year now, no in-person classes since then, and most of the country has been in quite strict lockdown,” he said.

In June, when caseloads were higher, stay-home orders had begun easing before hospitals could get their equipment ready and coordinate with each other to handle the coronavirus, said Maria Ela Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

People still went outside without masks then, sometimes to find work in an increasingly desperate economy, as well as to join friends and relatives in tight spaces where the virus could quickly spread.

Local authorities, however, now sometimes enforce stay-home orders so strictly they even force residents to turn back if they go out too far from their doorways, domestic media and people on the ground say.

Meanwhile, metro Manila reportedly plans new curfews from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. starting Monday because of a recent spike in cases.

Ordinary people are doing their share now in controlling cases, Rabena said.

“It’s because the people have exercised more caution,” Rabena said. “Here, when you go out, you wear a mask and a face shield. Everybody is still careful. Compared to last year of course, this year is much better.”

Marivic Arcega, operator of an animal feed distributor in the Manila suburb of Cavite, has gone all-out to keep herself and her surroundings safe.

She employs only a “skeletal” staff plus a driver who does delivery, Arcega said. A son takes college courses online and another lives in central Manila but seldom comes home. When he does visit, Arcega said, he rides in a friend’s car rather than taking public transit. Her husband never goes out. Customers are told to keep a distance.

“Us here at the store, no facemask, no entry, and then my cashier is enclosed in a booth, and we’re all wearing face shields,” said Arcega, 52. “I stay inside my office and don’t interact with the customers anymore. If they speak to me, [it is] from the door of my office. They don’t really come in.”

The millions of vaccine doses that the Philippines has secured so far are boosting morale, Rabena said. The government aims to loosen neighborhood quarantine rules as more people become immunized, he believes.

Officials hope to pull the Philippines out of a sharp recession caused by store closures and people being stuck at home rather than able to work outside. The country’s economy contracted 9.5% last year after sharp annual upturns in the previous half-decade.

If family incomes shrink 30%, per a worst-case estimate, up to 45% of Philippine children would live in poverty, up from 24% now, Noubary said. The Philippines, he said, already has paid a “significant price” in terms of child poverty.

UNICEF has supplied personal protective equipment and cleaning solutions to poor families and helped provide vaccines that are on the ground today. It is now nudging the government to reopen schools little by little in parts of the archipelago with low COVID-19 caseloads as online learning has caused 2.7 million children to drop out of the school system, Noubary said.