Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte holding a vial of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine during a ceremony at a military airbase in Manila, shortly after the vaccines arrived from Europe on March 4, 2021. Photo: AFP/ King Rodrigues

MANILA – Despite imposing one of the strictest coronavirus lockdowns in the world, the Philippines has re-emerged as a Covid-19 hotspot, a reflection of the government’s erratic and often wrongheaded approach to the pandemic.

The rapid spread of new Covid-19 variants and a snail-paced rollout of vaccines is also undercutting economic recovery following a near 10% contraction in gross domestic product (GDP) last year, the worst economic performance in the region.

The Philippines registered close to 8,000 daily infections over the weekend, bringing the weekly average to over 6,000 per day, the worst infection rate seen since the middle of last year. Total Covid-19 cases in the Philippines now stand at 664,000 cases, with per capita infection rates now surpassing neighboring Indonesia’s abysmal record.

In response, the Duterte administration has imposed draconian new measures including restrictions on international visitors, which temporarily covered even non-working Filipino citizens overseas.

Until mid-April, only Filipino citizens, their foreign spouses and children, foreign diplomats and visitors for urgent humanitarian missions will be allowed into the country. They will face five-day mandatory confinement in accredited hotels and a post-trip Covid-19 test on arrival.

Those who test negative are expected to spend the rest of their 14-day mandatory quarantine at home, provided they are sufficiently isolated from other residents.

After relaxing one of the world’s longest coronavirus lockdowns last year, the Duterte administration has this time imposed so-called “careful and calibrated” lockdowns in major urban centers, with Economic Planning Secretary Karl Chua warning “reverting back to a stricter and blanket community quarantine is no longer an option.”

A motorist rides past closed shops on Boracay island in the central Philippines. Photo: AFP

In his latest national address, Duterte admitted that a new hard lockdown “will be a disaster for the country if you close everything” following last year’s steep economic contraction. 

In its latest report, Moody’s Analytics projects Philippine GDP will expand by 6.3% this year, well below the low end of the government’s 6.5-7.5% target, which is largely predicated on a low base recovery after last year’s steep contraction.

One reason for the expected tepid recovery is the Duterte administration’s weak fiscal response, with Covid-19 economic recovery programs among the least generous in the region.

“The lack of aggressive fiscal policy support means that a rebound in employment and small business operations from the long quarantines will be slow,” warned Moody’s Analytics chief Asia-Pacific economist Steven Cochrane, who has highlighted how “the Philippines faces challenges on many fronts.”

The Duterte administration has also bungled its public health response, from its much-delayed mass testing to its sluggish contact-tracing, which critics say has facilitated the rapid spread of new Covid-19 variants in recent weeks.

The biggest area of concern, however, is the much-delayed and chelonian vaccine rollout, with only a few thousand citizens, mostly front-liners and government officials, so far receiving jabs.

“We cannot be sure that the spread of Covid-19 can be curtailed until vaccinations are more widely available because the quarantines in Metro Manila have not been completely effective. The recent curbs on movement confirm this,” Moodys warned.

Even the Duterte administration-friendly Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc (FFCCCII), which has been among the biggest supporters of the president’s pro-Beijing foreign policies, is now sounding alarm bells.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s leadership on fighting the virus has been questioned. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

In a recent public form, FFCCCII president Henry Lim Bon Liong warned “because of the sudden surge of the pandemic, new regulations (for) malls, movie houses, dine-in will no longer be allowed in restaurants. I think this will set us back at least by another quarter.”

Duterte’s perceived as erratic leadership and its resultant regulatory uncertainty have undermined the Philippines’ mass vaccination program.

The Filipino president’s quixotic antipathy towards Western pharmaceutical companies prevented the country from securing access to Covid-19 vaccines from potential suppliers such as Pfizer-BioNTech.

Instead, the Filipino president played politics over health by staking his country’s recovery on alternative vaccine sources from China, which delivered a limited and much-delayed number of vaccines in late February.

Due to safety concerns, neither Duterte nor Philippine Health Secretary Francisco Duque III have taken the Chinese vaccines, further intensifying public skepticism about the government’s vaccination program. 

The Filipino president has also exacerbated the situation by contradicting his own government’s efforts to resolving regulatory concerns about vaccine acquisitions.

Since none of the available Covid-19 vaccines have been commercially certified, and instead only received emergency authorization by regulatory agencies, recipient countries are expected to pass national indemnity laws for any potential side effects.

After a months-long delay, the Duterte administration and legislators coordinated the passage of a new indemnity law, including a 500 million peso indemnity fund, to facilitate large-scale purchases of vaccines from private companies overseas.

A nurse administers the Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine during a ceremonial vaccination program held inside a sports stadium in Marikina City, east of Manila, Philippines, on March 2, 2021. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/George Calvelo

During his March 22 address, however, the Filipino leader opposed his own government’s and legislative allies’ moves and called them “illegal,” throwing the country’s already struggling vaccination program into deeper uncertainty.

“The manufacturers want the private sector to buy, but the government will assume liability. This cannot be,” warned Duterte in Tagalog, raising doubts as to when the Philippines will clear regulatory obstacles to vaccine imports. 

Duterte’s public opposition was even more curious since earlier his own cabinet members explained the necessity of a so-called indemnification law.

“In all contracts, we signed an indemnification clause just in case an adverse effect comes up. We cannot delegate that responsibility to the private sector or the LGU [local government units],” the Philippines’ “vaccine czar” and former military chief Carlito Galvez clarified shortly before Duterte’s speech.

Duterte’s latest remarks drew criticism from across party lines, including from his staunch allies in the Philippine Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon lambasted the president’s latest move as “unbelievable” following weeks-long negotiations between the administration and legislators.

“Duterte certified the law as urgent. We passed it. He signed it. There is a law,” emphasized Drilon, who was visibly shocked by the president’s flip-flop on the issue.

For his part, former economy minister and independent-leaning Senator Ralph Recto stressed the importance of a rapid and effective vaccination program that covers at least 70 million Filipinos to achieve at least a semblance of “herd immunity.”

Philippines House of Representatives legislator Maria Imelda ‘Imee’ Marcos has also put pressure on the country’s leader. Photo: AFP/Joel Nito

“To achieve that this year, we need to jab four million [Filipinos] per week for nine months to reach 72 million Filipinos with two jabs each,” he said.

“All other issues like indemnification should be looked upon within this context. That should be the goal. So allow both private and locals to assist the national government to attain this goal,” said the senator, emphasizing the importance of consistency and a sense of urgency in the government’s response.

Even Senator Imee Marcos, a staunch Dutetre ally and the daughter of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, couldn’t hold back her criticism.

She said the recently-passed indemnity law doesn’t provide “blanket immunity” against liability by companies, as Duterte argued, since “[n]o one can be deprived of their individual and private rights to file suit.” 

Earlier, Marcos joined Senate President Vicente Sotto III, another Duterte ally, who lambasted the government’s mishandling of the crisis and called for the abolition of the president’s task force on Covid-19.

“Something is wrong. Instead of subsiding … infection rates have increased after one year,” lamented Sotto in a press conference, criticizing the government for its resistance to outside advice.

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

“When the idea is not theirs, they do not accept it. Maybe they think they are the best,” the Senate president added.

Marcos, however, had the toughest words against the government’s perceived mishandling of the crisis.

“They’ve really confused us. They have been imposing too many lockdowns, too many arrests, too many policies against the people, but lack policies on the medical, science and testing fronts,” Marcos said.