A woman wears a mask as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus in Manila on March 13, 2020 (Photo by Maria TAN / AFP)

MANILA – The Philippines has become the first Southeast Asian country to impose a mandatory lockdown of its national capital, Manila, as fears of an epidemic rise with a sudden surge in new coronavirus cases.

On March 12, President Rodrigo Duterte announced that Metro-Manila, among the most densely populated capitals on earth with over 12 million residents, will be under “community quarantine” from at least March 15 to April 14.

The designation bans mass gatherings, including presumably church services, and mandates government office and school closures. The order encourages the private sector to adopt flexible work arrangements and strict social distancing, with manufacturing, retail and service businesses advised to continue operations.

Public transport will also remain operational during the lockdown period.

The dramatic move followed the Department of Health’s announcement this week it had confirmed 52 Covid-19 cases and five virus-related deaths. The Philippines previously had among the lowest number of cases in the region in the single digits.  

“The crisis is very, very clear. Covid-19 is spreading throughout the country,” Duterte said in a nationally televised address on March 12. “Do not belittle it. Do not minimize it, but do not kill yourself with worry … If you do not cooperate, the problem would start and it would start with you and it will end with you,” he said.

“For Manila, we don’t want to use that [term] because we fear lockdown, but it’s a lockdown,” the president said in mixture of Tagalog and English languages.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on the campaign trail in 2016. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

“There is no power struggle here, there is no fight here, no war. It’s just a matter of protecting and defending you from Covid-19,” he said, likely in a bid to pre-empt complaints of martial law-like restrictions on liberties and movement.

That said, the president will use security force muscle to enforce the lockdown.  

The resolution, Duterte said, would soon be converted into an executive order so that authorities could legally implement it. Thousands of Philippine National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) troops are set to be deployed to checkpoints across the capital’s region to enforce strictly the lockdown, media reports said.

Philippine National Police (PNP) chief General Archie Francisco Gamboa told media ahead of the “community quarantine” announcement that as many as 40,000 police forces, including from national support units, would be positioned in the capital “in case things would come up.”

Meanwhile, as many as 1,500 soldiers from the military’s Joint Task Force are on standby to assist police forces.

If the situation deteriorates, officials say, the Philippines could adopt measures similar to those imposed by China in Hubei province, the original epicenter of the lethal disease, in late January and more recently Italy enforced on a nationwide scale on March 10.

Beyond the 52 confirmed cases, dozens of other patients are known to be under Health Department observation with flu-like symptoms.

A security officer checks the temperature of tenants of an office building in Manila, February 3, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

But with only 2,000 test kits in a country of 100 million, there are widespread concerns about underreported and undetected transmission, especially in the congested Manila region which hosts thousands of Chinese citizens, many working in the online casino sector.

Philippine Health Secretary Francisco Duque III admitted there is a possibility of “underreporting, although unintentionally”, because “of our limited testing supplies. As soon as we get more, we will be able to expand the coverage of who will be tested,” he said.  

Underscoring that risk, earlier this month visitors to the Philippines tested positive upon their return to Australia and Taiwan.

Duterte’s decision is based on a resolution forwarded by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), comprised of key Cabinet members and relevant agencies and tasked to manage the country’s now spreading Covid-19 outbreak.

Releated travel restrictions are expected to be finalized soon, according to Transportation Assistant Secretary Goddes Libiran. Full details of the “community quarantine” have not yet been made public, as officials continue to weigh the extent of the measures to be adopted.

Authorities are reportedly considering multi-level quarantines in areas with clusters of significant transmission. “Neighborhood”, or barangay, quarantine could be imposed if there are at least two positive virus cases in different households in the same neighborhood.  

A government worker disinfects a high school amid concerns about the spread of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus in Manila, March 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

“Municipality” quarantine may be enforced if at least two Covid-19 cases are found in different barangays, while “province” quarantine is being considered in cases where at least two positive cases are discovered in different municipalities and cities of a province.

The draconian measures are in accordance with the Philippine constitution’s Section 6, which gives emergency powers to the president to limit the movement of citizens “in the interest of national security, public safety, or public health, as may be provided by law.”

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said on March 13 that the lockdown may be shortened or extended depending on evolving facts on the ground.

“The suspension of domestic travel will be reviewed on a daily basis, and may be lifted earlier if the situation allows it, or extended further if the situation requires it,” Nograles said.

For now, there are exemptions for non-Manila residents who work in the city on a daily basis.

Many have reluctantly welcomed the lockdown as needed to prevent a full epidemic, with fears rising the disease could transmit quickly in highly congested poorer areas.

Filipinos rush to buy protective masks at a medical supplies store in Manila, January 31, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

At the same time, the announcement has sown certain fear and loathing, seen in widespread panic buying in the evening of March 12, with basic commodities and sanitary alcohol hoarded from supermarket shelves.

The 48-hour lockdown window before March 15 is also expected to trigger an exodus of panicking Manila residents to upcountry areas, as many wonder if the government has the acumen and resources to implement an effective lockdown.

Others are concerned about how Duterte’s authoritarian instincts, including his persistent threat to impose nationwide martial law to contain terrorism threats, will shape, guide and inform his emergency health measures.