MANILA — Some 27 million people in the Philippines or about a quarter of the population went back under the second strictest lockdown level on Tuesday after exhausted health workers warned the country was losing the battle against the coronavirus.
Since the beginning of June, when much of the country emerged from one of the world's longest stay-at-home orders, confirmed infections in the archipelago have increased fivefold, surging past 100,000.
The new restrictions announced by President Rodrigo Duterte late Sunday apply to Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Rizal and Quezon until Aug. 18.
For the next 2 weeks, public transport will be halted and domestic flights grounded to try and slow the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 2,000 people in the country.
People have been ordered to stay home unless they need to buy essential goods or exercise outdoors.
Only a limited number of businesses will be allowed to operate and restaurants will be permitted to serve only take-aways.
"We really fell short. Nobody anticipated this," Duterte said, as he rejected calls for the Health Secretary Francisco Duque to be sacked.
"Nobody expected that thousands will get sick on a single day.”
WORKERS STRUGGLE ON THE ROAD
Security guard Lito Sulit was among thousands who had to walk or rely on free rides to get to work. He started trudging 16 kilometers at 3 a.m. to reach his office in Quezon City.
“Kahit walang masakyan, maglalakad na lang ako para lang may maipakain sa pamilya ko," he said.
(Even if there’s no means of transport, I will just walk to work just so I could feed my family.)
Vice President Leni Robredo’s office, other agencies and some drivers offered free rides. However, these were not enough, leaving workers waiting for rides at some thoroughfares.
Authorities in MECQ areas revived checkpoints between towns to make sure that travelers are on essential business.
With only 24 hours' notice of the shutdown, many found themselves stranded in Manila and unable to get back to their hometowns after public transport and domestic flights were halted.
"We've run out of money. We can't leave the airport because we don't have any relatives here," said Ruel Damaso, a 36-year-old construction worker trying to return to the southern city of Zamboanga.
"We will have to stay here for 2 weeks until we get our flights back."
The world's hope of ending the current cycle of outbreaks and lockdowns rests on a vaccine.
Russia said Monday it aimed to launch mass production of a vaccine in September and turn out "several million" doses per month by next year.
But Vitaly Zverev, laboratory chief at the Mechnikov Research Institute of Vaccines and Sera, said it was "impossible to ensure a vaccine's safety in the time that has passed since the beginning of this pandemic."
"You can make anything, but who is going to buy it?"
The WHO warned that governments and citizens should focus on what is known to work: testing, contact tracing, maintaining physical distance and wearing a mask.
"We all hope to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual press conference.
"However, there's no silver bullet at the moment -- and there might never be."
The MECQ declaration comes after 80 medical associations representing tens of thousands of doctors on Saturday called for Duterte to tighten virus restrictions as hospitals, unable to cope with the influx of patients, turned people away.
The government has blamed poor compliance with virus restrictions for the sharp increase in infections which have been concentrated in Manila and the central city of Cebu.
Researchers from the University of the Philippines project the total number of infections to top 200,000 by the end of August.
Despite the grim trajectory, Duterte has been reluctant to reimpose a lockdown after the previous stay-at-home order took a heavy toll on the economy and threw millions out of work.
Data to be released on Thursday is expected to show the economy tumbled into recession in the first half.
- With reports from Ron Lopez, Agence France-Presse; Lyza Aquino, Henry Atuelan, Adrian Ayalin, Jervis Manahan, Jekki Pascual, ABS-CBN News