Filipinos wear protective gear against Covid-19 in Antipolo City, Philippines on April 24, 2021. Photo: Ryan Eduard Benaid/NurPhoto via AFP

MANILA – Hit by one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in Asia, the Philippine government has responded with a mixture of despondence, incompetence and cruelty.

Hospitals are near-capacity, the economy is in deep recession, vaccinations are rolling out at a snail’s pace and now there are growing suspicions that the authorities are manipulating pandemic-related data in order to conceal the true scale of their mismanagement.

Meanwhile, government authorities have cracked down on community pantries offering food assistance to hundreds of thousands of impoverished and unemployed Filipinos who are bearing the economic brunt of the pandemic.

Seeking to revive a battered economy, following an almost 10% contraction in gross domestic product (GDP) last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is set to relax ongoing lockdowns in the coming days.

Public health experts, however, have warned of a potential India-style crisis should the government prematurely relax the social distancing restrictions.

In recent days, major cities and the national capital region, which is responsible for the bulk of the archipelagic nation’s output and GDP, have moved to ease Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) measures, the second-highest level of lockdown.

“Although we are under MECQ, since we want total health of the people because if not due to Covid, many may die of hunger, there will be a list of industries and businesses that can reopen even though we’re under MECQ,” announced Presidential spokesman Harry Roque on April 29.

“We will still be under MECQ but the IATF [Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases] will meet to approve which industries can reopen,” Duterte’s spokesman added.

Filipinos on bikes in Antipolo City, Philippines on April 24, 2021. Photo: Ryan Eduard Benaid/NurPhoto via AFP

The Duterte administration is also considering the relaxation of travel restrictions on Filipino returnees from abroad, including the possible reduction of the duration of mandatory quarantine for new arrivals.

Experts, however, have warned against the premature lifting of restrictions lest the country risks following in the footsteps of India, where a general relaxation of social distancing rules and the emergence of new Covid-19 variants have caused the world’s worst yet outbreak in terms of new daily infections, which hit 375,000 today.

“As we move towards the end of April and the possibility of further easing quarantine restrictions, this delicate balance may tip over to completely overwhelm the health care capacities,” wared Dr Rodrigo Ong of the OCTA Research Group think tank.

He emphasized that the Philippines is at the “same cross-point” as India just weeks before the massive spike in Covid-19 cases there.

The Philippines has logged around 10,000 new cases per day in recent weeks, but experts warn that the true numbers could be significantly higher due to limited testing capacity, wobbly contact-tracing and even possible manipulation of Covid-19 data by authorities.

Questions have been raised in particular about the sudden drop in Health Department data concerning the number of active Covid-19 cases in recent days. Between April 17 to April 25, the number of active cases precipitously dropped from 203,710 to 77,075.

“From 203k to 77k in 8 days? Really? Are we just being lazy with monitoring Covid-19 cases, just tagging recoveries without due diligence?” asked Peter Julian Cayton, a statistician at the University of the Philippines, over twitter.

“These recovery rates are pretty ridiculous,” he added, coming just short of accusing the government of outright manipulation of data.

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

Data scientists and public health experts have pointed out the sudden and unexplained change in the DOH’s methodology, which contradicts standard guidelines on clearing confirmed and potential Covid-19 patients.

“They [DOH] usually tag mild and asymptomatic cases as recovered 14 days after the onset of symptoms, as long as their status did not progress to critical or severe,” observed Edson Guido, a data scientist and economist.

“But what they’re doing right now is they’re doing this tagging every day, and we’re seeing the result. It’s really a tweak in the protocol more than anything else,” he added.

At the same time, sustaining existing lockdowns could push the Philippine economy over the edge, warn economic analysts. The government is even considering the reopening of barbershops and limited dine-in in restaurants under strict social distancing measures, as months-long lockdowns and travel restrictions have ravaged the services sector.

Unlike its manufacturing-driven neighbors, which have avoided deep recessions by maintaining strong exports, the Philippine economy is largely dependent on the domestic demand and services for generating growth and jobs.

Despite the nation’s still robust credit ratings, the Duterte administration also failed to implement effective pandemic stimulus. Even by Southeast Asian standards, the Philippines’ has fallen short in providing desperately needed economic assistance to millions of poor families, especially in congested urban centers.

According to government data, the official unemployment rate almost doubled on a year-to-year basis earlier this year, jumping from 2.44 million in January last year to around 4.1 million this February. Underemployment, however, is an even bigger problem, jumping from 6.3 million to 7.85 million over the same period.

Given the relatively loose definition of employment and poverty in government statistics, the real economic picture is likely far more troubling.

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

Amid rising hunger and economic suffering, concerned citizens and civil society groups have stepped into the fray. Earlier this month, 26-year-old Ana Patricia Non set up the first community pantry of its kind in her village of Maginhawa in Quezon City, the seat of government.

“Give according to your means, take according to your need,” were her simple instructions, handwritten over a cardboard sign attached to a bamboo cart that contained around $16 worth of bottled waters, vegetables, canned foods, packed noodles, rice and other basic necessities.

Within days, her “Maginhawa Community Pantry” was adopted across Metro Manila and beyond, as hundreds of similar pantries sprung up in working-class communities.

As her initiative went viral online, with videos showing thousands of desperate Filipinos lining up for hours to avail themselves of donated groceries, some officials and law enforcers began to accuse her of acting as a front for communist rebel groups.

“Police officers repeatedly asked for my contact number. I also learned that they kept asking for my address from my volunteers,” she told international media after top government officials began to “red-tag” the community volunteer.

“Why are these community pantries sprouting all over all of a sudden? Why do they have a single theme?” claimed Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade, spokesperson of the government’s anti-communist task force.

“Patricia is one person, right? Same with Satan. Satan gave Eve an apple. That’s how it all started,” said the rabid anti-communist general and key Duterte ally, a troubling warning amid a spate of extrajudicial killings against progressive leaders and suspected communists in the past year.

Worried about the potential political fallout of civil society initiatives exposing government incompetence or worse, Duterte loyalists in the government have demanded permits for the pantries while pro-government trolls and propagandists have accused their organizers of violating social distancing rules. 

A man wearing personal protective equipment walks into a makeshift ward built for Covid-19 patients at a hospital in Manila. Photo: AFP/Jam Sta Rosa

The wanton harassment of community organizers, however, has provoked a massive backlash across the country. In response, the Mayor of Quezon, Joy Belmonte, stood behind the community pantry initiative while the city’s policy chief issued an official apology for the red-tagging of volunteers by law enforcers.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, generally seen as a voice of independence and reason in Duterte’s cabinet, also stepped in and issued a gag order against red-baiting generals on the issue.

“Kindness is everyone’s color. Whatever your beliefs are, as long as you are helping wholeheartedly, you can be assured of our support,” said Lorenzana.