Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte asked people to be patient. Photo: AFP/Presidential Office

MANILA – The Philippines’ second-largest urban center, Cebu City, has returned to full lockdown after a recent spike in Covid-19 infections some fear could be the first ripple of a viral second wave.   

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made the decision after a University of the Philippines (UP) study warned that the number of confirmed infected residents in the city and its surrounding province could balloon to 11,000 by June 30.

Over the past month, Duterte’s administration relaxed one of the world’s longest coronavirus lockdowns in a bid to prevent further economic pain and suffering. 

But just weeks into a general community quarantine (GCQ), a relaxation of the previous enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) regime, researchers found that the central island province has a virus reproduction rate of 1.96, meaning every infected person passes the disease to nearly two others.

The figure was far higher than in Metro-Manila, where transmission rates have recently hovered between .96 and 1.19. 

The Filipino president responded with his characteristic chutzpah by passing blame to Cebu authorities and residents for being “too complacent.” 

But critics say he’s putting the wrong people in the wrong places in managing the crisis.  

Security personnel hold up placards reminding people to stay at home amid concerns of the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Manila on March 31, 2020. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

Duterte has redoubled his reliance on former generals to contain the lethal disease, dispatching former military chief and current Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu to the city, despite lacking relevant experience in public health. 

Another former military chief, Carlito Galvez, who likewise has no relevant public health background, is currently the government’s Covid-19 crisis management team’s “top implementor.” 

The rising militarization of Duterte’s response has raised concern over the appropriateness and efficacy of his government’s approach to the disease. 

The Philippines currently has the highest death rate (10.6/million) in Southeast Asia. That’s sparked a rising call for the resignation of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, who has been accused of mismanagement and corruption over the years. He has denied corruption allegations. 

The departure of Dr Anthony Leachon, a prominent advisor to the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), has deepened public concern about the integrity of the government’s response. Leachon was reportedly eased out after exposing mismanagement and corruption among officials handling the crisis. 

Cebu City’s situation, officials acknowledge, is particularly alarming. During an interview with CNN Philippines, Cebu City Mayor Edgar Labella warned last week that 80-90% of the city’s residents who tested positive for Covid-19 have been asymptomatic, raising concerns of widespread silent transmission in the absence of strict social distancing measures.  

As of Monday, Cebu City had reported  4,449 Covid-19 cases, equivalent to 14.5 % of the country’s total 30,682 confirmed cases. 

Map: Wikimedia

“It is our moral and legal duty to really test, trace, isolate, and treat. That’s why we have this number,” said Labella while acknowledging that there has been a surge in infections following the relaxation of lockdown measures earlier this month. 

“We still continue to do mass testing, especially now that we were given 1,000 test kits by the Department of Health,” he added. Labella announced that the city has approved a 500 million peso supplemental budget to provide emergency aid to residents after the reinstatement of a full lockdown across the city. 

In a June 22 national address, Duterte underscored that Cebu City local authorities and residents were chiefly responsible for the viral resurgence. 

“Those from Cebu, it’s the same. Why are there more cases? Because you were too confident and too complacent about it. It’s like you ignored it. And there it is,” he declared, citing the need for national government intervention. 

“If you solve the problem locally amongst the officials there, there’s bound to be a derailment in the programs of government because they would start to blame each other and nobody would try to introduce novel ideas or even to implement one that is already,” he added. 

“It’s up to you to decide. If you get infected, then I’m sorry,” the leader added in a mixture of Filipino and English.

Cimatu, a decorated former general now in charge of Cebu City’s containment policy, has regularly attended weekly Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) meetings.

He also was dispatched by Duterte to clean up the island of Boracay in 2018, a six-month-long environmental rehabilitation program that helped to restore the tourist destination’s battered image. 

“I fully accept your challenge you gave. Just like the orders you gave to me before, to Boracay, we changed the cesspool image of Boracay to what it is now,” the former general said.

A soldier at a checkpoint in Manila as the city implements an enhanced community quarantine to fight against the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

Other former generals, including Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana, Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Ano and current military chief of staff Felimon Talusan Santos, have all been given critical roles in the government’s soldier-backed coronavirus lockdown. 

Duterte said he planned to visit Cebu City to ensure “hardheaded” residents strictly follow his government’s enhanced quarantine regulations, which critics note is heavy on jackboots and light on contact tracing and sustained mass testing. 

To date, his militarized response to the disease has led to tens of thousands of arrests, with some on social media even suggesting that Duterte is more focused on suppressing the population than the lethal disease.