A group of men known as trolley boys rest on their makeshift trolley carts while waiting for passengers along a railway track in Manila, Philippines on May 14, 2020. Trolley boys continue to operate despite the decline of passengers and the ban on mass public transport. Before Manila was placed under lockdown amid COVID-19, many commuters, mostly students and workers, rely on trolley carts as a mode of transportation.(Photo by Lisa Marie David/NurPhoto)

MANILA – A looming economic collapse has forced the Philippines to ease the world’s longest Covid-19 lockdown, a two-month-old quarantine that has squeezed the life out of businesses and non-essential industries, and raised the specter of social instability.

The recent reopening of shopping malls and other major public spaces unleashed a flood of people and traffic across densely populated Metro-Manila, raising fears that a lack of social distancing and mask-wearing could result in a “second wave” of infections.

With large clusters of infections and a backlog in mass testing, the country’s largest cities including Metro-Manila are still seen as Covid-19 hotspots. The Philippines recorded 12,942 cases and 837 deaths as of May 20, according to a Johns Hopkins University global statistical tracker of the pandemic.  

Secretary Carlito Galvez, an ex-military chief who heads the government’s ongoing “enhanced community quarantine” in Manila, recently acknowledged that country “has to [strike a] balance between health and economy.”

President Rodrigo Duterte’s government no doubt also aims to head off social unrest before it comes to a head, as criticism rises on social media over authorities sometimes harsh enforcement of the lockdown, including the targeting of the leader’s critics.  

The risk of a backlash is rising as the lockdown crimps the economy, which is well on course to contract for the first time in over two decades.

A woman waiting for relief goods to be placed on chairs designated for households in a low income community in Metro-Manila. Photo: EPA via AFP Forum

Still, lawmakers and health officials have warned of severe punishments and the possibility of rolling back easing measures if the public resorts to risky behaviors, as were on full display in social media posts of crowded markets and malls in recent days.

Most provinces have recently relaxed their lockdowns, shifting from “Enhanced Community to Quarantine (ECG)” to “General Community Quarantine (GCQ)”, where basic social distancing and health guidelines are in place but most local businesses and institutions are allowed to re-open.

The major urban centers of Metro Manila, Metro Cebu and the five major provinces surrounding the national capital region, however, are still under strict lockdown due to persistently high clusters of coronavirus infections.

Under the modified GCQ lockdown, certain processing and manufacturing plants as well as shopping malls and real estate construction have been allowed to resume operations, albeit under strict restrictions and at half their normal staffing.

Production plants for petroleum products, electronics, minerals, tobacco and drinks have been allowed to restart operations, as have large-scale infrastructure projects in major cities, a major driver of growth in recent years.

Financial institutions such as money exchange and insurance companies have also been granted permission for partial reopening. As elsewhere, gyms, night clubs, barber shops and salons have remained closed due to contagion concerns.

Whether those easing measures will be enough to revive the economy is unclear. Philippine gross domestic product (GDP) suffered its first contraction since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis in the first quarter of this year, falling a much worse-than-expected -0.2%.

Shoppers stand apart as social distancing measures while queueing outside a supermarket in Manila on March 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

The locked down second quarter is expected to be far worse, with some independent outfits projecting GDP for 2020 could shrink by as much as -3.4%, a massive reversal of fortune on last year’s 6% growth.

More than a million Filipinos could lose their jobs in a country with already the highest unemployment rate in the region, the Finance Ministry predicted in April even before the extent of the lockdown was known. Underemployment has consistently measured in the double-digits in the Philippines.

“The lockdown had a big impact on Covid cases but it also impacted the economy,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a briefing last week, underscoring the Duterte administration’s rising desperation to arrest the economic freefall.

“Government resources are limited, so we have to generate resources for the long-term fight against Covid. In the future, if without economic interventions, the result would be more harmful than the effects of Covid,” he added.

Critics say the government is partially to blame. For one, the Beijing-leaning Filipino leader refused to institute strict travel restrictions on incoming Chinese citizens until February, long after the disease began its deadly global spread out of China.

With Duterte largely dismissive about the crisis until mid-March, authorities also failed to establish the necessary infrastructure for sustained mass testing.

Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte takes questions while wearing surgical mask on April 8, 2020. Photo: Facebook

Recent figures suggest that the Philippines has conducted far fewer tests than neighbors such as Vietnam, Malaysia and even the city-state of Singapore, all of which have smaller populations. 

The government has admitted to its failure to meet its own relatively modest target of 8,000 tests per day in a country of over 100 million residents. That, critics say, raises the risk for a second wave of infections as the country eases out of lockdown.

“I can’t dispute that we did not meet the goal that by the end of April 30 the [Health Department] can conduct 8,000 tests daily. We were delayed,” Roque said in mixture of Filipino and Tagalog at a press conference in mid-May.

Earlier authorities claimed that they had the capacity for up to 12,000 tests a day, with an aim of conducting 30,000 daily tests in order to have a more accurate assessment of the disease’s spread than the current official figures suggest.

The presidential palace provoked public outrage when it recently suggested that the private rather than public sector should instead take responsibility for mass testing. Several provinces have thus refused to relax their lockdowns, fearing large-scale undercounting of the nation’s true infection rate.

Lawmakers have chimed in with criticism of the government’s virus response.

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

“We haven’t tested much. The stats will speak for itself. But yes, I expect more infections without proper social distancing and non-wearing of masks,” Senator Ralph Recto said in underscoring the government’s failure so far to contain the crisis.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, another leading independent voice, urged the government to “reconsider their decision on the opening of the malls and other similar establishments unless strict physical distancing and other protocols are observed.”

Under a current universal healthcare scheme, the government is obliged to cover up to $15,000 worth of medical expenses for those who are hospitalized with critical Covid-19 symptoms. But not all sufferers will receive the benefit, it seems.  

Congressman Jericho Nograles has asked the government, including the state-run Philippine Health Insurance Corp (PhilHealth), to consider punitive measures including the removal of insurance coverage for “people who deliberately endanger themselves and their community.”

“The same non-coverage should apply for those who are irresponsible enough to throw parties and the like which would endanger the public,” he added.