Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken aim at medical professionals as his country's Covid-19 outbreak accelerates. Image: President Photo/Twitter

MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is losing his battle against Covid-19, forcing him to reimpose a debilitating lockdown on and around the national capital while lashing out at doctors and nurses for raising alarms of a health care system collapse.  

Despite imposing one of the strictest and longest coronavirus lockdowns in the world earlier this year, the Philippines is re-emerging as a worrisome new regional epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Sunday, the Philippines recorded a daily record 5,032 new viral infections, pushing the nation over 100,000 confirmed cases. The day before, local groups representing doctors and nurses appealed for tighter virus measures to arrest the spread.  

In response, Duterte re-imposed so-called Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) in Metro-Manila, Cebu and surrounding provinces, which make up the bulk of the nation’s economic output.

MECQ, the second most stringent level of lockdown in the Philippines, will shutter most public transportation and economic activity until at least August 18.

The renewed lockdown will also inevitably drive the country deeper into recession and undermine investor confidence. The lockdown’s announcement drove down the local bourse 3.59% on Monday.    

Workers wears hazmat suits as they disinfect and sanitize a public school in the City of San Juan in Philippines on March 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Dante Diosina Jr/Anadolu Agency

The Philippines has already suffered one of the steepest economic downturns in Asia, with Oxford Economics projecting a 6.9% contraction in sight of a months-long lockdown that shuttered close to 75% of economic activity earlier this year.

Despite massive borrowing that has driven the national debt to a record-high of 9.05 trillion pesos ($180 billion), the government has not yet finalized a consolidated and credible economic recovery package.

Faced with twin public health and economic crises, Duterte has come under rising pressure to overhaul his strategy. Until now, the Beijing-leaning leader has seemed to pin his hopes on the delivery of a Chinese-made vaccine.

Duterte has claimed in national addresses that China has promised to give the Philippines top priority in the distribution of any Chinese-made Covid-19 treatment.

At the same time, Duterte has stood stubbornly by Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and his deputies who have been widely criticized for massive incompetence and even corruption in their handling of the health crisis.

Indeed, the country’s health professionals are warning of a total collapse of the healthcare system due to an accelerating overload of Covid-19 cases.

“We have been in this fight since March. We feel we are nearing the end of our line. We are appealing for everyone’s help,” said Aileen Espina of the Philippine Society of Public Health Physicians.

“Our health workers are suffering burnout with seemingly endless number of patients trooping to our hospitals for emergency care and admission,” said Jose Santiago, president of the leading doctors’ group Philippine Medical Association.

“We are waging a losing battle against Covid-19 and we need to draw up a consolidated and definitive plan of action,” he added, as various doctors’ groups  called on the government to “recalibrate strategies against Covid-19.”

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

The medical frontliners’ decision to take their grievances public enraged Duterte, who lashed out at critics of his government’s response to the outbreak during a national address on Sunday.

“There is no need for you and for the guys, 1,000 of you, telling us what to do publicly. You could have just written us a letter,” said Duterte referring to health worker during a televised speech. “We follow everything you say, after all,” he said.

“[If] you raise the spectacle of [your] agony, you treat it as if you are about ready to stop work, who will we rely upon then? I am sure that is not in your heart, I am sure that in your despair I would like to tell you that the government will not abandon its workers,” Duterte said in a mixture of Tagalog and English.

Duterte has approved the hiring of 10,000 medical professionals to beef up the current workforce and additional benefits for healthcare workers treating patients, according to his government spokesman, Harry Roque.

However, later in his televised address, Duterte switched to a more menacing tone against medical workers.

“But don’t scream revolution right and left… try it… Let’s kill all those are infected by Covid. Is that what you want? We can always end our existence in this manner,” he said. “I dare you, do it,” Duterte continued, prodding nurses and health workers to go to police stations with their grievances and demands for higher pay.

“I don’t give a fuck if you gather one thousand, two thousand, but bear in mind…We are not incompetents here because we are not doctors…You should do the soul-searching…You do nothing but complain…what can I do? I have always been praying to God for a vaccine,” said Duterte.

“Let’s just wait for a vaccine. Let’s wait till December, if we can just be patient…We are not going back to a ‘new normal.’ It’s going to be normal again,” he added.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III talks during the press conference at the Department of Health in Manila, February 03, 2020. Photo: AFP via Andalou Agency/Dante Diosina Jr

That’s not how top legislators see the situation. With mounting evidence of the government’s mismanagement of the ongoing crisis, lawmakers are calling for a strategic rethink and removal of perceived as incompetent officials.

“I couldn’t understand what ‘amulet’ or magic potion [Health Secretary] Duque has as far as the President is concerned,” tweeted leading Senator Panfilo Lacson.  

“The Covid-19 importers are the virus-infected couple from Wuhan, China who spread the virus in Manila because your Secretary Duque miserably failed to do a simple contact tracing,” Lacson wrote in a tweet.

In April, a majority of senators passed a resolution calling for Duque’s resignation over his handling of the disease, a call the president has repeatedly rejected.

During his late-night speech on Sunday, Duterte once again stood by his embattled ally, saying the health secretary “did not import Covid-19.”

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