Filipinos wait in line at a community pantry as they receive goods from Catholic church in Antipolo City, Philippines on April 22, 2021. Photo: Ryan Eduard Benaid / NurPhoto via AFP

MANILA – A new viral wave is gathering lethal pace in the Philippines while President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration plays down rather than addresses the region’s worst public health crisis.  

The outbreak has coincided with a government move on April 12 to relax previous strict social distancing measures across major Philippine cities. Soon thereafter, the number of daily active cases breached 200,000, the worst infection rate in Southeast Asia.

The Department of Health (DOH) announced 8,767 new Covid-19 cases on April 22. That figure, however, likely represents just the tip of the viral iceberg given systemic inconsistencies in data-gathering and the limited testing capacity across the country.

A major source of concern among medical experts is the high positivity rate, with 17.5% of 48,133 individuals tested on April 20 infected.

The Philippines’ healthcare system, meanwhile, is under siege. According to the latest data, the utilization rate of dedicated ICUs in the national capital region is now at 80% as the nation’s already fragile healthcare system struggles to cope with the outbreak.

Hospitals have erected tents to accommodate the new surge in Covid-19 patients at some Metro Manila area medical facilities due to a lack of beds.

The situation has deteriorated to the extent that the US State Department issued an “Alert Level 4: Do not travel” advisory for the Philippines this week, an indication of a “very high level of Covid-19 in the country.”

Indeed, pandemic desperation is spreading across the nation. Hopes are waning for a robust economic bounce back in 2021 after turning in -9.5% gross domestic product (GDP) growth last year, the worst performance in 47 years.

Faced with a lack of vaccines and a snail’s pace vaccination program, the Philippine government is resorting to unconventional Covid-19 treatments for the disease, including clinical trials of the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin.

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

Meanwhile, top leaders are either in denial or unaware of the extent of the crisis. In his latest pre-recorded “Talk to the People” national address, aired on April 19, President Duterte appeared to make light of the escalating Covid crisis.

“So with that, I suppose there is not much to talk about,” the leader said after a long-winding speech that touched on South China Sea disputes with China and pandemic-related financial assistance given to citizens. “What’s the other one?” he said seemingly in jest.

A nearby official reminded him of the new Covid-19 wave, prompting the populist leader to remark, “Oh, the Covid? Oh well,” he said, without providing any clear guidance on his government’s plans to address the crisis.

Earlier this month, Duterte tried to assure the public that the government was doing everything necessary to contain the outbreak. “Do not be afraid. Government is working. Government is busy doing everything, not nothing. Government is trying to get the things to fix all of us,” he claimed.

Shortly after the president’s April 19 national address, however, the country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed new plans to test the potential mass usage of ivermectin as a Covid-19 treatment.

“The president himself just instructed us, including the DOST [Department of Science and Technology] and DOH, to study it,” announced FDA director-general Eric Domingo during a televised briefing on the pandemic.

“He must have heard a lot of things about it that many support it and many scientists also say the evidence is still lacking. So he ordered that the government also study it,” said the country’s top food and drug regulator.

Earlier, the Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology and other concerned agencies took a skeptical stance on using the drug, which is currently commercially available only for animal use.

A relative wearing personal protective equipment attending to a family member with Covid-19 at a makeshift tent ward outside a hospital in Manila, April 6, 2021. Photo: AFP/Jam Sta Rosa

The World Health Organization, for its part, has said that it does not advocate the use of ivermectin given the absence of statistically relevant evidence of its effectiveness against Covid-19.

That’s not stopping its use in the Philippines, including at the highest level of government. Duterte’s top allies such as Senate President Vicente Sotto III have admitted that they are taking the anti-parasitic drug as a preventative Covid-19 measure.

“I take it as prevention, once every two weeks,” admitted Sotto during a radio interview, as unvaccinated Filipinos resort to scientifically unproven drugs amid generalized desperation.

Medical experts and advocacy groups have called on the government to take more proactive and scientific measures, including more systematic contact tracing and a stronger commitment to the so far snail-paced national vaccination program.

“The Philippines has the longest lockdown in the world [last year], yet the government has failed not only in saving lives but in recognizing, admitting and learning from its failures,” said Leonard Javier from the Health Alliance for Democracy.

“Now most hospitals in the National Capital Region plus are overwhelmed, with patients spilling over to nearby provinces,” he claimed.

Duterte’s government has so far vaccinated 1.4 million Filipinos, with 500,000 doses of the still globally unproven Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine arriving this week.

Another 15,000 Sputnik V shots, made by Russia’s Gamaleya Institute and likewise not approved by health regulators in Western nations, are expected to arrive in the Philippines over the weekend.

A city employee disinfects houses at an informal settlers area in Manila on March 16, 2021. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

 The government’s vaccination rollout, which began belatedly in late February, is nowhere close to where it should be at this juncture in a country with over 100 million people, many of them living in congested urban areas where the disease can more readily spread.

“The Philippines is the laggard of the entire region as a record-high number of new Covid-19 cases … and the country faces a severe shortage of vaccines,” Moody’s economist Steven Cochrane said in a report on Monday.

At the same time, there is growing vaccine skepticism among Filipinos amid concerns about the safety and efficacy of the mostly Chinese-made vaccines Duterte’s government has given what many see as politicized priority.

The leader had earlier lambasted Western pharmaceutical vaccine makers for their perceived inequitable pricing policies while stating his preference for cheaper Chinese ones.

That’s clearly now costing the nation. More than six out of ten Filipinos expressed unwillingness to be vaccinated, according to a Pulse Asia survey conducted between February 22 to March 3.

Over 74% of the reluctant respondents cited safety issues as their major concern. Only 16% of those surveyed by the independent pollster expressed willingness to be vaccinated, a sentiment that has spread despite the pandemic’s resurgence in the country.

In January, the same survey agency found that nearly 50% of Filipinos expressed so-called “vaccine skepticism”, underscoring the public’s distrust in the Duterte administration’s politicized vaccination program.

“Around six in 10 Filipino adults (61%) do not want to get any Covid-19 vaccine — a sentiment shared by majorities across geographic areas and socio-economic groupings,” the independent pollster’s latest report said.