Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “enhanced community quarantine”, a Covid-19 lockdown measure imposed in March on the capital Metro-Manila and across the northern island of Luzon, is in some ways causing more suffering than its preventing.  

When the lockdown was first initiated on March 17, unknown thousands of Metro-Manila residents sought to escape the military-enforced measure by fleeing the densely populated metropolis for their airier homes in the provinces.

Their homecoming arrivals, however, have not all been received with typical Filipino mirth and warmth, as many upcountry locals are worried and irked that the urban-to-rural transplants may have brought the dreaded, lethal coronavirus with them.

That’s putting frontline medical workers, including doctors, nurses and medics, at the forefront of the panicked blowback.

Such “panic mobility” is building across Covid-19-infected Southeast Asia and other regions, as governments seek to contain their outbreaks through restrictions on human movement.

Philippine social media is abuzz – sometimes helpfully, other times menacingly – with Covid-19 warnings about fleeing urban dwellers’ arrivals in provincial areas that were previously not known to have any virus cases.

A woman wears a mask as a precautionary measure against the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, Manila, March 13, 2020 (Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

Advice-offering Facebook posts and memes, including household-level protection and social distancing protocols, have been widely shared online as certain “panic movers” have reportedly unwittingly passed the infection on to their elderly relatives.

Elderly people, particularly those with underlying health conditions, are known to be especially vulnerable to the pneumonia-like disease.  

A mounting culture of fear of those who have fled from the city to the provinces is also targeting medical frontline workers, who are now seen by many agitated locals as potential virus carriers. That fear, in certain instances, has led to violence.

On March 27, a nurse in Sultan Kudarat province on the southern island of Mindanao became one of the first reported victims of pandemic-related physical harassment when he was attacked by five men who thought he was a Covid-19 carrier.

In a street-level attack, the suspects splashed bleach over the nurse’s face, prompting his local employer, St Louis Hospital, to publicly denounce the assault, which it said could have caused “irreparable and permanent damage to his sight.”

The attack happened on the same day as Governor Suharto Mangudadatu’s announcement of a lockdown and 10-hour curfew across Sultan Kudarat in a local government bid to contain provincial spread of the disease.

A Filipino man in transit is tested for fever at a police checkpoint south of Manila amid a Covid-19 lockdownMarch 15, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/George Calvelo

The governor signed Executive Order 25 after Sultan Kudarat province reported its first Covid-19 fatality, an 87-year-old male who succumbed to “acute respiratory failure”, according to the Department of Health’s Region 12 office said.

In another incident in Cebu City, assailants hurled chlorine at a nurse, although he was uninjured in the attack. 

There is growing concern that Covid-19 motivated discrimination and violence against Filipino medical frontliners could spread with the disease, ironically at a time when medical workers’ bravery and commitment amid rising human tragedy is being widely lauded.

Doctors, nurses, hospital workers and emergency responders already must contend with the heightened risk of infection in their work, a risk that is rising coincident with a growing number of Covid-19 infections, currently the second highest in Southeast Asia with 1,546 as of March 31.

At least 78 have died from the disease in the Philippines.

In central Iloilo province, landlords have reportedly ordered nurses to vacate their houses for fear that they are carrying the virus with them from their hospitals.

Other reports show that restaurant owners have also barred medical workers from their premises due to fears they might contaminate their eateries and drive away other customers. Several others have been barred from boarding buses and been refused entry at border checkpoints.

On March 26, the San Jose District Hospital in Batangas was forced to close for disinfection and decontamination after one of its patients, a 63-year-old who had no travel history, died 12 hours after being moved to another hospital.

The hospital’s personnel who were exposed to the patient were asked to go into self- quarantine. Several others, however, had no choice but to continue to stay at the hospital as people in their own villages barred them from returning home.     

That’s all putting medical frontliners at risk both inside and outside of their hospitals and clinics.

“It is very disheartening to know that the very people who have sworn to take care of us are now being discriminated against,” said Felix Ray Villa, chief executive officer (CEO) of The Medical City Iloilo.

A Filipina nurse in Covid-19 protection gear. Photo: Twitter

“These people are risking their own lives so the rest of us may live. Please take note that our biggest enemy is Covid-19 and should not be ignorance … After them, we have no one.”

One medical supervisor lamented, “We are not the enemies here. We are facing the threat every day in the hospital.”

In a bid to defend medical frontliners, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR) released an official statement saying, “Being our frontliners in the war against a very deadly infection, they should be hailed as heroes. Some of them have already died laying their lives so that others can live.

“Without them, who will take care of those among us who may fall victim to a vicious and deadly yet invisible enemy?”

The CHR has urged the Department of Health (DOH) to provide more information to the public before the Covid-19 pandemic causes a coincident epidemic of fear, ignorance and violence.

The CHR has also called on government leaders to help address the situation by creating and implementing ordinances to assist and protect medical workers and health responders, including in guaranteeing basic necessities such as food and shelter.

A Philippine nurse attends to an elderly woman in a file photo predating the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: AFP/Jay Directo

There are widespread reports that many already lack sufficient personal protective equipment, including basic needs such as face masks, in their hospitals and clinics.   

“We appeal to government regulatory agencies to strengthen their watch and sanction, with the full force of the law, those who were granted franchises or privileges to operate business ventures yet abused such to discriminate against those they are supposed to serve.”

Until that happens, Duterte’s containment efforts will be compromised by fear and misunderstanding, a panic that jeopardizes the very medical frontliners his government now needs to contain and defeat Covid-19.

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Analiza Perez-Amurao

Dr Analiza Perez-Amurao is assistant professor and chairwoman of the Humanities and Language Division, Mahidol University International College in Thailand. She holds a PhD in multicultural studies from the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University, a Master of Arts in English Language and Literature Teaching from Ateneo de Manila University, and a postgraduate diploma in teaching English as a second or foreign language from the Regional Language Centre, Singapore.